The Court Cases That Changed Our World

Many of the greatest strides in the fight for LGBT social justice and sexual liberation were the result of court cases, often involving accidental activists simply fighting for the right to live their lives like everybody else.

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

August 22 2012 3:00 AM ET


Michael Kantaras
Kantaras v. Kantaras

When Michael Kantaras, a transgender man, and his wife, Linda Forsythe, split up in 1998, a long custody battle ensued over their marriage and their children: Matthew (Forsythe’s child from a previous marriage, whom Kantaras had adopted) and Irina (whom the couple had together using alternative insemination). The ex-wife argued that their marriage was invalid because Kantaras had been born female, but the initial trial judge ruled in favor of Kantaras, who had already come out as trans, had top surgery, and begun hormone therapy two years before he even met his wife.

Much of Forsythe’s argument — and the media’s inflammatory speculation — centered on whether or not Kantaras had had bottom surgery and if not, whether a man can be a man without a penis.

In 2003, Pinellas County, Fla., judge Gerard O’Brien ruled that Michael was a man, therefore had been legally married to Forsythe and the children’s legal father, and awarded him custody. “Chromosomes are only one factor in the determination of sex, and they do not overrule gender or self identity, which is the true test or identifying mark of sex,” O’Brien wrote in his ruling. “Michael has always, for a lifetime, had a self-identity of a male.”

Sadly, the Florida Supreme Court reversed the ruling in a unanimous 2004 verdict, ruling that Kantaras was still a woman, so the marriage was null and void because same-sex marriages were illegal in the state. It not only robbed Kantaras of his children (the voided marriage put his custody claims in jeopardy) and his personhood, but it also set a precedent in Florida that no marriages between people of the same birth gender were legal.

The custody case went back to trial court and the whole fiasco dragged on as Kantaras’s two children became teenagers. Then an unlikely hero intervened: Dr. Phil McGraw. In 2005 the Oprah acolyte brought Kantaras and Forsythe on the Dr. Phil show, where he convinced the couple to go through two and a half  days of intense mediation to reach a custody agreement. Kantaras’s lawyer, Karen Doering of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, supported him through the long battle and told the Tampa Bay Times at the time of the show’s taping, “We’re optimistic that we're going to be able to work something out. It never would have happened without the Dr. Phil show.”

The couple soon agreed on a shared custody arrangement, which allowed them both to have time with the children and share decision-making regarding the kids’ lives. The legal implications of the case are still debated, though Doering told reporters that she’d take “a happy family over a precedent any day.” Officials with the right-wing Liberty Counsel, however, called it a victory for their side. Liberty Counsel president Mathew Staver told Court TV, “The trial court established a precedent in which gender was ruled a product of one’s mind that could change through a medical procedure. But when it was reversed, it was established that being a male or a female is still a matter of law for the legislature to decide.”

“I am very happy and pleased to say that both children are doing great!” says Kantaras now. “We continue to have a very close and loving relationship. I am also very excited to say that I am able to see both Matthew and Irina pursuing their goals and what amazing young adults they both are. Matt will be heading to Fort Benning in September, he will be serving in our U.S. Army! Irina is starting her junior year at a university in Florida, in the honors program, studying psychology. Yes! I am extremely proud and very blessed! As for myself, I have decided to begin publicly speaking to help change things in the courts. My family is amazing! I believe that other transgender parents should have the chance to be a part and raise awesome children … just like mine!”

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