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No charges in uncertain-gender wedding

A couple who obtained a state marriage license and had a ceremony before authorities realized both were biological men will not face charges, officials in Virginia said Monday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The couple walked into a Norfolk courthouse on a spring day, exchanged a few words, and within 10 minutes, were seemingly husband and wife.

It was an unremarkable ceremony — except that several weeks later, officials realized the shapely bride might not have been a woman.

Antonio E. Blount, 31, and Justin L. McCain, 18, could have faced misdemeanor false information charges, punishable by a fine up to $250, but officials say the men will not be charged.

The case turned on whether the pair knowingly committed a fraud, something prosecutors couldn't determine, according to a letter Davis received Monday from Newport News Commonwealth's Attorney Howard E. Gwynn.

"We don't have the ability to prove beyond a reasonable doubt there was an intent to deceive," said Jack Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Gwynn.

Fitzpatrick said Virginia law does not clearly define "bride" and "groom," which at the time were the only spaces on the marriage license application the couple filled out. The forms have since been changed to specify "male applicant" and "female applicant."

"Now that the forms have been changed, that is a crime and should someone do that again, they will be prosecuted," Fitzpatrick said.

The pair went to Newport News Circuit Court on March 24 to obtain a marriage license — McCain appearing as a woman and saying the name "Justine" before a deputy, said Newport News Circuit Court Clerk Rex Davis.

McCain produced a Virginia driver's license, but a design quirk — the 'm' or 'f' for male or female appears directly against a darkened state seal — meant nobody noticed McCain's gender, Davis said.

"When things are rolling along and you don't have any reason to suspect that somebody is not being completely forthright with you, you might not take the time to check," said Davis, who issues about 2,200 licenses a year.

The same day, the couple traveled 19 miles south to Norfolk, where local marriage commissioner Al Coward performed the ceremony.

"They pawned themselves off as a man and a woman, and they did a very good job," he said.

Application for name change tipped officials offDavis said officials became suspicious around May 12, when McCain returned to court to apply for a name change. The new name, Penelopsky Aaryonna Goldberry, "raised a red flag," said Davis.

Paperwork later revealed McCain's legal name of record was Justin, not Justine. Davis said vital statistics officials in McCain's home state of North Carolina later confirmed McCain was born male, though they would not provide actual records.

When McCain called to check on the name change application last month, Davis said the teen confirmed the birth gender.

The couple have not commented publicly since the ceremony, and The Associated Press was not able to locate either person. Davis said the marriage is considered illegal because both individuals are legally considered to be men.

A man who answered a door at a Norfolk address linked to McCain late last month identified himself as McCain's grandfather. But he said the teen had moved and wasn't in touch with the family. Calls to a phone number listed for the teen went unanswered.

Activists say the case highlights the difficulty in trying to fit transgender individuals into rigid legal definitions of what makes one male or female. Less than one percent of Americans is transgender, a fluid term that can apply as much to a person who has had gender reassignment surgery as to those who take hormones or wear clothing to resemble another sex.

Most state courts have been silent on the issue of whether marriages involving a transgender person are valid, transgender rights advocates say. Most case law involving transgender rights, meanwhile, surrounds discrimination, not marriage.

Transgender people are increasingly recognized by courts as matching their "gender identity," or internal sense of gender, said Cole Thaler, an attorney with gay rights legal group Lambda Legal, a gay and transgender civil rights group.

That means "it's not deceptive for a transgender person who lives their life as a gender different from the gender they were assigned," said Thaler.

Rules for transgenders complicate the issue
Complicating the issue is a confusing system for how a transgender individual changes gender on legal documents. All but Tennessee, Ohio and Idaho typically change one's gender on their birth certificate following gender reassignment surgery, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

But local, state and federal agencies have their own standards for defining male or female, according to Paisley Currah, founder of the Transgender Law and Policy Institute. The result: One person's sex may vary from birth certificate to passport to doctor's office.

"You could have a driver's license in New York state that says you're a male and have a birth certificate from New York City that says you're female — there's no simple answer to the question of someone's legal gender," Currah said.