Even after 13 years, Michael Kantaras easily recalls the urgency with which he searched for a lawyer with expertise in transgender issues during his divorce. His estranged wife moved to have their 10-year marriage voided and strip Michael of his parental rights, just because he is transgender.

“Terrified. Absolutely terrified,” is how Michael describes himself at that time.

He could not fathom losing his two young children, Mathew and Irina, who were just ten and seven at the time. “From the time I was little,” he says, “that’s all I ever wanted – to have kids and a family and be a husband.”

Despite having been born female, Michael had always felt he was male. In the mid-1980s, when he was in his twenties, he underwent gender transition, receiving treatment at a Texas clinic under medical protocols established by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), which works to promote evidence-based care in transgender health. Michael legally changed his name, and was eventually issued a new driver’s license, Social Security card and passport reflecting his male identity.

Linda was fully aware that Michael was transgender when they married in a small ceremony attended by their parents and other family members in 1989. Linda had recently given birth to Mathew, her son by a former boyfriend, but it was Michael who accompanied her to prenatal appointments during the pregnancy and was with her in the delivery room to cut Mathew’s umbilical cord. He later adopted Mathew. In 1992, Linda gave birth to Irina, who is named for Michael’s mother, after being artificially inseminated with sperm from Michael’s brother.

When the marriage collapsed, what began as a routine divorce filing by Michael deteriorated into an emotionally wrenching, seven-year legal battle when Linda petitioned to have the marriage voided on the grounds that Michael was a woman and Florida does not recognize marriages between same-sex couples. On that basis, she also argued that Michael could not be a father to their two children, and therefore must be stripped of his parental rights.

Although Michael’s divorce attorney, Collin Vause, was competent and committed to representing him, the attorney had no experience with transgender people or their issues. “Collin said, ‘We’re going to need help,’” Michael recalls.
Michael contacted a host of LGBT and civil rights organizations about his case, and eventually found expert advocates in Karen Doering and Shannon Price Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), an LGBT impact litigation organization that works in states outside of New England. (Minter co-authored two chapters of Transgender Family Law: A Guide to Effective Advocacy.)

It was the first time a Florida court had grappled with a custody case involving a transgender parent, and the three-week trial predominantly focused on the question of whether Michael was legally a man. In an interview with the New York Times soon after the trial ended in February of 2002, presiding Judge Gerard O’Brien acknowledged he had never before heard a case like Michael’s. “I’m afraid I’m going to be living at the law library,” said the judge.

If the issues presented were difficult for the judge, they were humiliating for Michael, whose genitalia, bodily functions and sexual performance were discussed in great detail during the trial, which aired in its entirety on Court TV. He recalls being afraid to use the bathroom at the courthouse after all of the testimony about his anatomy. “It was just blowing my mind the type of questions they asked,” he says. “Did I stand up to urinate? Were we able to consummate the marriage? In my mind I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What in the world does this have to do with raising children?’”

O’Brien, having taken into account the extensive testimony on transsexualism, the treatment of gender identity disorder, and Michael’s lived experience, issued a decision that was more than 800 pages. He ruled Michael was legally male, that his marriage to Linda was valid, and awarded Michael primary custody of Mathew and Irina. Transgender legal advocates hailed the decision as groundbreaking.

Linda appealed, and in 2004, a Florida appeals court overturned O’Brien’s ruling, stating that the marital rights of people who have undergone gender transition is one for lawmakers to decide. “Until the Florida legislature recognizes sex-reassignment procedures and amends the marriage statutes to clarify the marital rights of a postoperative transsexual person, we must adhere to the common meaning of the statutory terms and invalidate any marriage that is not between persons of the opposite sex determined by their biological sex at birth,” the appeals court stated in its decision.

The court remanded the question of Michael’s parental rights back to the trial court, and it appeared the legal battle would resume anew when TV personality Dr. Phil intervened and asked the couple to let him mediate a custody agreement. After two lengthy sessions, portions of which were televised, Linda and Michael reached an agreement in which he retained all of his parental rights and shared legal custody of the children with Linda’s mother.

Michael’s relationships with Mathew, now 22, and Irina, now 20, remain strong. Mathew is studying carpentry and considering a career in the military. Irina, a former cheerleader and National Honor Society member, is a sophomore in college. “I’m so proud of them,” he says, “considering all they’ve been through.”

While his story ended happily, Michael is well aware he was more fortunate than many transgender people facing divorce or custody disputes. Seven years after his case was resolved, the Florida legislature, for instance, has yet to address the issues that arose at Michael’s trial, which means that transgender parents and spouses are still without critical protections in the family court system, easily victimized by estranged spouses trying to gain the upper hand.

As Michael puts it, though he wouldn’t have predicted that his wife would use his gender identity against him in court, “it was a sword that she had available, and she used it. And until we can take the sword away legally, they’re going to use that.”

Transgender people shouldn’t be looked upon and treated differently solely on the basis of their gender identity, Michael observes.

“I’m not a transgender dad. I just happen to be a parent who is also transgender,” he says. “I consider myself a dad first – and I’m a pretty good dad.”