Jessica (Right) and Robin Wicks share a celebratory kiss on the steps of the Bexar County Courthouse after receiving their marriage license on Sept. 6 . Photo by AP
Here come the brides
BY RETHA OLIVER
On Saturday, Bexar County plays host to a special ceremony, the wedding of a Houston couple who have come here to celebrate with friends and family, and even with a few strangers. The cause célébre? A strange twist of judicial rulings and legal injustice that has conspired to make Bexar County the one place in the state -- indeed, in the nation -- where they are indisputably able to marry.
Jessica Wicks is a soft-spoken woman, who punctuates her thoughtful, carefully worded statements with pauses and light smiles. Recently retired, Jessica is a self-avowed computer addict, and is working on a novel that she says is nearing completion. It's the sort of dream every recent retiree might have: To anticipate blissful hours of creative work, and a little high-tech tinkering around. Jessica and Robin Wicks had ventured from their Montrose home to apply for a wedding license at the Bexar County Courthouse, which was granted amid a flurry of television cameras and curiosity seekers. I met the couple, and a handful of friends and activists -- including their attorney Phyllis Randolph Frye -- at Tomatillos Cafe y Cantina on Broadway, where they assembled to wind up the day.
TWO PEOPLE IN LOVE
Robin sits across the table, and I sense that she's a little overwhelmed by all the bustle of their high-profile day. "I told Jessica, now I understand why movie stars all use drugs," she recounts. She eyes me a bit suspiciously, and I don't blame her. The media are prurient -- that's obvious from the flippant one-liners that two local television broadcasters exchanged at the end of their news segment on the Wicks' marriage license (see page 6). Robin holds her conversation in check, letting Jessica field the questions, but when she does speak, Robin seems like any Houston matron. Her voice is open and warm, but she punctuates her conversation with statements that show she has been hurt by the responses of a world quick to judge, and slow to understand.
There's a certain amount of courage required for this public display of affection. While the media feeding frenzy is an inevitable side effect of their wedding, it nonetheless brings attention to them, and attention can have unwelcome consequences. Being lesbian is, in itself, dangerous enough. "I've had my car keyed," says Robin. "Sometimes, when you're walking, holding hands, you get that feeling. Like, is the person who's watching okay? Will he try to do something to us out in the parking lot?"
"One of the problems we have in Texas is that homophobia is in many ways institutionalized," adds Jessica, "People get the idea that in many ways it's okay to [commit violence against gays and lesbians]. It's not nearly as bad now, in some ways. But in other ways, it's worse." Jessica continues, "The fear and hatred is in a smaller percentage of society, but they are much more fanatic than in the past."
The outline of the Wicks' story is known to anyone who caught local television last week, and to many readers of the national press. But it really begins with the story of another woman, San Antonio native Christie Lee Littleton.
Christie is a hairdresser, a slender woman who wears flowing dresses and lightweight blouses that flatter her figure. Meeting Christie these days, you meet a wounded spirit, a woman who has lost the husband she loved, and who has lived on to see her marriage, and her identity nullified.
When Christie's husband of seven years, Jonathan Mark Littleton died, she believed the doctors who had treated him were at fault. After all, the only thing he suffered from when he first went in was a stubbed toe. But that resulted in a blood clot, which led to a medication, which thinned his blood until he effectively developed hemophilia. When he suffered a torn tendon, her husband sought medical help, and was denied service at two public hospitals and two private clinics, according to Littleton. "They said that he needed an appointment, even though there wasn't anybody in the waiting room," she recalls, "and I said, 'You learned medicine to help people. I'm a hairdresser, and people take appointments. If I don't have time to cut a lady's hair, she can wait. But medical care, that can mean a life.' But they wouldn't see him. That was on a Friday, and they sent us to the old Brady Green Clinic, but they were closed until Monday." The following Monday, she maintains, Jonathan Mark Littleton was finally seen by doctors at downtown's Brady Green Clinic -- now part of the University Health Care System.
After an eight-hour wait, says Christie, doctors spent fewer than five minutes with her husband. "I kept telling them he had a blood clot, and they kept saying 'that's all cured.' They kept refusing to recognize his history, and I kept saying, no, no, he has blood clots." The doctors gave Littleton some Ibuprofen and sent him home.
Less than 24 hours later, Jonathan Mark Littleton died of the blood clot his wife had warned about. But when Christie went to court to pursue a wrongful death settlement, a move she says was motivated more out of a need for justice than for money, she found herself stopped by a ploy she would never have anticipated. The defending attorney had the case thrown out, claiming that Christie had no right to sue -- had no rights at all, in fact, as the wife of Jonathan Mark Littleton -- because Christie Lee Littleton was born a man.
She was reared in downtown San Antonio. "We lived above the family business, Lucy's Cafe and Bar," which was situated at what is now the entrance to Hemisfair Plaza. "My aunt had a salon, and by eight I was taking out rollers, by 10 I was doing up-dos. I graduated beauty college when I was 15." When Christie had gender reassignment surgery a decade later, it was simply the final step to establishing what she always knew she was -- a woman.
For the defense attorneys who decided to dodge the legal bullet by questioning Chistie's marital status, nothing was at stake but money. The insurance company wanted to avoid her case, a gesture that suggests Littleton may have had a good argument, if it had come before a jury. The more important issue of whether malpractice occurred will remain unanswered, buried under a hailstorm of voyeuristic controversy with Christie at the middle.
Christie is still grieving. When she filed the case, she had included as plaintiffs her husband's mother and stepchildren, in Kentucky. When her gender change came to light (Littleton says she told her husband when he proposed) his family disowned her. After Christie's case was dismissed, they settled with the insurance company out of court.
"I had him buried near them, under one single tree on top of a mountain. Back at his mother's home, in Pikeville, Kentucky. It was what he wanted." It's clear that for Christie Lee Littleton, after the family disowned her, the husband she says she "misses constantly, misses so much" became even farther away.
In ruling that Christie Lee Littleton is the gender of her birth, Chief Justice Phil Hardberger's opinio -- written for Texas' 4th Court of Appeals -- relies on assumptions about what Christie Lee Littleton's chromosomes might reveal, although chromosome testing never occurred. Mounting scientific evidence suggests that chromosomal anomalies are fairly common -- and are only a part of the intriguing mystery of gender in humans.
TEXAS CAN'T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS
Whether malpractice occurred or did not occur depends not on Christie Lee Littleton's gender, but on the acts of the physicians who treated her husband, and the public would clearly best be served by a court that addressed that issue. But Texas courts have become notoriously pro-industry -- and the insurance industry seems to have benefitted especially from this arrangement. It probably never occurred to the justices that the precedent they were setting when they denied Christie Lee Littleton's right to sue would lead to such a bizarre twist of circumstances.
The ruling of the court that Christie is a man in spite of her functioning vagina opened up an opportunity for the Wickses to marry -- because Jessica was born a male. The peculiar ruling had an even stranger effect: Jessica is now legally a man in San Antonio, and a woman in Houston.
"We thought they'd issue us the license in Harris County. We had no idea, when we went waltzing down there and applied for a license, that it would ever be denied," says Jessica Wicks. But it was. In Harris County, Jessica Wicks is what she appears to be -- a woman. In Bexar County, as in the other counties served by the 4th Court, Jessica Wicks is legally still a man.
GROWING UP "DIFFERENT"
"I don't really talk about it much," Jessica says of her 1992 gender-altering surgery, "that's a part of my life I just don't dwell on, but this (the Hardberger decision) has made it necessary to discuss it." Jessica is native of Tyler, Texas -- a small town of which she says, "Back then, it wasn't a bastion of liberality."
"I don't know why we're born with brains like this," admits Jessica "I don't have a clue. But we think little boys have one pattern, and little girls have another. If you get someone seeing it the other way, everybody is confused. As far back as I can remember -- 3 years old -- I knew something was wrong. When I was a child I got beat up plenty of times, because everyone sensed I was different. I purposely lowered my voice, long before it dropped, to try to be more manly than I felt."
She went home a few years ago as a woman, Jessica recounts, for a 35th high school class reunion. "It was a very warm, pleasant experience. I felt fortunate that people were as supportive as they were."
In public, as in the law, opinions may be advanced that lack not only compassion, but common sense. In private, Jessica believes, Texans have both. "Interestingly enough, in Texas, many times they will wear that badge of conservativism, of hatred and fear. But if you catch them individually, they will let down that facade. As a group, they can be a real problem. But personally, Texans are warm people."
It has been a long day for Robin and Jessica Wicks. We've been drinking Mercedes Margaritas, the restaurant's potent specialty.
That, and the big events -- the drive from Houston, the trip to the courthouse, the activists, the media, and finally, the release of all that pent-up energy -- has made us all a bit light-headed. I'm watching Jessica, who is watching Robin, and as they talk, I'm listening to the easy flow between them -- the give and take; how they look at each other with blushes, reach across the table to hold hands, and how, when Jessica wraps up a slow, considered statement, Robin chimes in with the perfect one-line summation. They remind me of any old married couple. There is a kind of ingrained intimacy in all their conversation, and in the unspoken words, the gestures they use that are a clear shorthand for shared thoughts. It's like watching my brother and sister-in-law.
So Jessica and Robin go home to Houston. The group at the table disbands amid an exchange of business cards and a few jokes. Jessica and Robin comfort Christie, who is overcome by emotion, and then everyone heads for the door. But the Wickses will return this week, to the one town in the United States of America where they can definitely have a legal wedding.
No doubt their lives would have been less complicated, and quite possibly safer, if they'd gone quietly to the county clerk, married, and driven quietly home. But for a brief moment in their lives, Robin and Jessica Wicks have been granted an opportunity to make a difference. "We've had a wonderful fantasy about being old people in our 90s, talking to young people about what we went through," says Jessica. "And they'll look at us and say 'You mean, you couldn't just go down and get married?'"
The upcoming nuptials have united the transgender and gay/lesbian communities, who see themselves as quite different from each other, although dominant culture makes outcasts of them both. "It made me very depressed, when I actually knew that the wedding was going to happen," says Christie Lee Littleton, "Because they (the court) threw my marriage away, and then they gave a license to what I see as a same-sex marriage."
SEE YOU AT THE WEDDING
But Christie Lee Littleton will be at the wedding, because she knows a lot about love, and the sanctity of marriage.
Plenty of other people will be there, too. The event has become a fundraiser for the San Antonio Equal Rights Political Caucus, which is raising funds for another legal battle, and the media will certainly be in attendance, including yours truly. In fact, on the 16th of September, a host of people will gather to witness a wedding that they will view in a host of different ways.
Some will see it as a triumph of activism, some will view it as a historic anomoly. Others doubtless will see an abomination before God. I know that I will see, quite simply, two people who love each other, saying "I do."
Christie Lee and Jonathan Mark Littleton on their wedding day.
Photo courtesy Christie Lee Littleton
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