In 2005, Calvin Radtke and Christine Alisen were married in Minnesota. Calvin works for United Parcel Service, and he added Christine to the health care benefits plan provided by his employer and administered through Miscellaneous Drivers and Helpers Union Local #638 Health, Welfare, Eye and Dental Fund ("the Fund"). Five years later, when various Fund employees realized that Christine was born a man, the Fund terminated her eligibility for coverage. The Fund took the position that the couple was not legally married because Minnesota does not recognize same-sex marriage and sex as "observed and recorded at the time of birth" determines whether a person is male or female.
Christine filed an action against the Fund in federal district court in Minnesota. (The case is in federal court because the employee benefits are governed by a federal statute -- ERISA -- and such cases are heard in federal court.) On Monday, District Court Judge Michael J. Davis (a Clinton appointee) ruled that Calvin and Christine are legally married and that the Fund erred in dropping Christine from coverage.
Christine participated in the Transgender Program at the Univeristy of Minnesota Medical School in the 1980's. In 2003, she had sex reassignment surgery. In 2005, she obtained a court order changing her name and directing the Wisconsin State Registrar to issue a replacement birth certificate in her new name and gender. Wisconsin did so, and a month later Christine and Calvin married.
In the litigation, the Fund cited court rulings from other states holding that a person's sex is determined at birth. In one of the most nefarious cases, Kantaras v. Kantaras, the Florida appeals court held that Michael Kantaras was not the father of the children his wife conceived through donor insemination because he was not legally married to her at the time of conception since he had been born a woman.
Judge Davis noted that cases from other states were irrelevant. The only issue was whether the couple was married under Minnesota law. Judge Davis concluded that if Christine was female under Minnesota law then she was Calvin's legal spouse. He determined it was inappropriate for the court to "invent" a federal definition of sex based on sex assigned at birth. Rather, he determined it was proper to look at Christine's current birth certificate and official documents issued by Minnesota. Like most states, Minnesota allows a person to change his or her sex on a birth record after sex reassignment surgery. Minnesota does this after a court order or a letter from a doctor that the person "has completed gender reassignment surgery or hormone therapy." (Note that this suggests that surgery is no longer required in Minnesota, something especially important for FTM transgender individuals). Wisconsin does this as well, which is why Christine was able to get a new birth record there.
The Court then noted that "the only logical reason to allow the sex identified on a person's original birth certificate to be amended is to permit that person to actually use the amended certificate to establish his or her legal sex for other purposes, such as obtaining a driver's license, passport, or marriage license." "There is no basis," the Court continued, "to conclude that Minnesota recognizes Plaintiff as female for some purposes -- birth records and driver's licenses, but not for others -- marriage certificates." Thus, Christine is a woman and the Fund was wrong to drop her coverage.
While the case was pending, the Fund actually amended its definition of eligibility to explicitly state that in deciding whether a marriage is between a man and a woman, it will recognize only "the anatomical sex of the individual at the time of birth." Really? The Fund has an independent stake in the resolution of this issue? This is truly an outrage. The Court in this case was not in a position to address the validity of this definition because the Fund had yet to apply it to Christine (and might not). But it might be a matter of time before another individual faces this rule.
Of course if same-sex marriage were recognized the issue of Christine's legal sex would be irrelevant here. But until then cases will continue to occur whose resolution turns on the sex of one spouse. I find the ones concerning parentage, like Kantaras and another case not cited by the Court, In re Marriage of Simmons, from Illinois, especially troubling. In those cases, children lost a parent as a result of the court's refusal to recognize either the marriage or some other basis for determining parentage.
This is an important ruling because it stands in contrast to the many decisions ruling otherwise.