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Dr. Phil weighs in on custody fight

A transsexual and his ex-wife could set legal precedent, but not if the TV host helps them resolve things first.

Published May 6, 2005

A local custody battle between a transsexual and his former wife has dragged on for more than six years, gained national attention and set the stage for possible legal precedent.

But the quarrel may be near an end thanks to television's Dr. Phil.

Transsexual Michael Kantaras and his former wife, Linda, have taped two segments on Dr. Phil over the last month. The first will run at 5 p.m. May 17 on WTSP-Ch. 10. The second will run sometime near the end of the month, though an exact date has not been set.

In the first show, Dr. Phil persuaded the former couple to try mediation and they almost reached a custody agreement two weeks ago, said Karen Doering, an attorney for Michael Kantaras.

At the second taping Thursday in Los Angeles Dr. Phil urged the former couple to put their children first and come to a resolution. Doering thinks that may happen in upcoming mediation meetings.

"We're optimistic that we're going to be able to work something out," said Doering, a lawyer for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which has supported Michael Kantaras. "It never would have happened without the Dr. Phil show."

Michael Kantaras, 46, was born Margo, but underwent sex-reassignment surgery in 1987. Though he retains female genitalia, he has facial hair and other male characteristics.

He married Linda, who knew he was a transsexual, in 1989. The couple raised two children. The oldest, a boy, was from a previous relationship of Linda's, but was adopted by Michael. The second, a girl, was conceived through artificial insemination with donor sperm from Michael's brother.

After nine years, the marriage soured. Michael filed for divorce in 1998 and the custody battle began.

In 2001, a Pinellas judge granted custody to Michael. A key part of the ruling was the judge's decision to consider Michael a man, which legitimized the couple's former marriage.

But last year an appeals court ruled Michael was a woman. Because same-sex marriages are illegal in Florida, the ruling voided his marriage to Linda, 36. The appeals court, however, did not rule on the child custody issue and kicked that back to the judge.

The first rehearing in the case was in January. Senior Judge Gerard O'Brien Jr. has heard arguments, but has not issued a ruling. Doering said Thursday she doesn't believe one is imminent.

Michael's attorneys have argued that courts have ruled that men whose marriages are voided still have obligations to their children, even if they are adopted. Those cases involve men who committed incest or bigamy.

The case of a transsexual, however, is a first of its kind and could set legal precedent. But not if Dr. Phil solves the dispute first.

A spokesman for Dr. Phil said one of Linda's family members e-mailed the show several months ago about the custody fight. Producers researched the case and called Doering. She had concerns, most notably that the show would turn into something like the Jerry Springer show.

"The producers kept assuring us that's not what it's about," Doering said.

Both Michael and Linda Kantaras eventually agreed to go on the show.

"We figured, they've been litigating this case in court for 61/2 years and what can it hurt?" Doering said. "Maybe there's something Dr. Phil can say or do to make something happen to end this thing."

During the taping of the first episode a month ago, Dr. Phil scolded Michael and Linda for getting into a drawn-out custody fight that did not put the children first, Doering said.

The kids, who are now 15 and 13, did not appear on the show.

Doering and Mathew Staver, Linda's attorney, both sat in the audience during the tapings and agreed to the mediation.

The show asked a Fort Lauderdale mediator to meet with the former couple and their attorneys. They gathered in a St. Petersburg office for about nine hours two weeks ago and came close to an accord. "We sort of ran out of time," Doering said.

The former couple flew out for a second taping, which was Thursday morning. The show pays for guests' travel and lodging, but does not pay them to appear, said show spokesman Chandler Hayes.

Dr. Phil McGraw's nationally syndicated show has been on the air since September 2002. He began his TV career as Oprah Winfrey's resident expert on human behavior. He practices clinical psychology and behavioral medicine.

Hayes said the Dr. Phil show recently has focused on contentious custody and adoption cases.

"He likes to be the voice of the child who often can't speak in situations like this," Hayes said. "The problems seem really complex, but he says all the time, "Aren't the solutions really simple?' In this case, I would hope that would be true."

Dr. Phil urged the former couple to keep working toward a resolution. Doering said there may be a third show if one is reached. She said lawyers are working on an agreement that would give parental rights to both Linda and Michael.

"We're fairly close to an agreement," she said. "There's just a few little hang-ups."

Michael Kantaras declined an interview Thursday, simply saying: "We're just hopeful."

Neither Linda Kantaras nor her attorney could be reached for comment.

Both Michael and Linda live in Holiday. Michael runs a lawn service and pressure-washing business and Linda is an assistant site manager for an elementary school.

If the case is resolved, it no longer stands to be a precedent-setter. That's fine with Doering. "I'll take a happy family over precedent any day," she said.

[Last modified May 6, 2005, 00:37:10]

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