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    Custody case tricky: He used to be she

    A wife whose husband used to be a woman fights to keep her kids. Was the marriage legal? Ask the judge.

    photo
    [Times photos: Krystal Kinnunen]
    Linda Kintaras told a judge that her marriage to Michael Kantaras was a fraud because he was born a female and that she should have the kids.

    By LEANORA MINAI

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published October 26, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Like many couples, Michael and Linda Kantaras are in the middle of a nasty divorce.

    Like many couples, each wants custody of the children.

    But this case, unlike any other in Florida, comes with an extraordinary circumstance.

    photo
    Michael Kantaras filed for divorce from Linda Kantaras in 1998. He, too, seeks custody of the couple's children.
    Linda has told a judge Michael shouldn't have the kids because he is not really a man. Michael was born Margo, but 14 years ago he had a sex change.

    The case, now before a circuit judge in Pinellas County, is raising a variety of legal questions that have never been heard in a Florida courtroom; only a handful of such cases have been considered across the country.

    "It borders on medical science, psychology, psychiatry -- all of which may be material to a decision," said Circuit Judge Gerard O'Brien, who has been assigned the case.

    Among the legal questions:

    • Can a transsexual marry, or be given custody of children under Florida law?
    • What constitutes gender?
    • What's best for the children?

    While posing unprecedented legal questions, the case has personal ramifications. The family's situation is now in the public eye.

    "I'm asking for custody," Michael Kantaras said Thursday after a court hearing. "I'm standing here not only for myself but for the hundreds of transgender people who, unfortunately, may have to go through this in the future."

    Margo Kantaras was born on March 26, 1959, in Youngstown, Ohio. Her mother was born in Ohio; her father, Greece.

    When she was 4, Margo started realizing she felt and thought like a man.

    "I have the heart, the mind and the soul of a male."

    In the late 1980s, Kantaras underwent hormone treatments and two surgeries at the Rosenberg Clinic in Texas but retained female genitalia. Then there was a legal name change in 1986: from Margo to Michael.

    He met Linda Gail Forsythe in 1988 when they both worked at Albertsons supermarkets in Palm Bay near Melbourne. He worked as a bakery manager; she worked the salad bar.

    They fell in love.

    "He has a wonderful charisma and aura," said Linda Kantaras, 33, a substitute teacher and Pasco County resident. "He can stand in a room and 50 women will come up to him."

    They were best friends.

    "We hung out all the time," said Michael Kantaras, 42, who still is a bakery manager. "We went and had lunch together, shared the same friends, went to the same places. Things that best friends do."

    They walked into a Seminole County building in July 1989, filled out paperwork as man and woman and got a marriage license. No questions asked. They were married in a civil ceremony on July 18, 1989.

    At the time, Linda Kantaras had a 1-month-old son from a prior relationship. Michael Kantaras wanted to raise the boy as his own. They went through legal proceedings, again as man and woman. And Michael Kantaras adopted the boy.

    Later, they decided they wanted another child, so Michael Kantaras' brother donated sperm for artificial insemination. A baby girl was born Jan. 23, 1992.

    The Kantarases lived as husband and wife in Holiday and New Port Richey for the next nine years. Then Michael Kantaras met another woman. Linda tried to make things work with Michael.

    "Linda," he told her, "I want to stay married to you as your best friend. I do not want you as my wife. I want you as my best friend."

    He hired an attorney and filed for divorce in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court in 1998. He requested that the children, now ages 9 and 12, live with him.

    Linda Kantaras countersued. She told the judge the marriage was a fraud, illegal and that she should have the kids.

    "Trying to take my kids from me?" she asked. "That's ludicrous."

    O'Brien, the judge, will hear the case during a trial in January and then rule. He will have to decide whether Michael Kantaras is legally a man, whether the marriage is valid and who should get the children.

    Florida allows marriage only between a man and woman, which means the marriage could be ruled invalid on the grounds that same-sex marriages are not recognized. State marriage law does not mention anything about transgender people. And Florida law does not allow people to change the gender on their birth certificate after a sex change.

    "No case has ever appeared in the state of Florida like this," O'Brien said.

    There have been a handful of cases across the country similar to the Kantaras matter.

    In Orange County, Calif., Kristie Vecchione claimed that her marriage to Joshua Vecchione was invalid because California doesn't recognize same-sex marriages. Joshua was born a female and was known as Janine until a sex change.

    Kristie wanted sole custody of their child, but a judge ruled that Joshua Vecchione should enjoy the same custody rights as any father, because California recognizes the postoperative gender of transsexuals, hence theirs was not a same-sex marriage.

    Gay, lesbian and transgender advocates said the marriage between Michael and Linda Kantaras should be recognized.

    Shannon Minter, the lawyer who represented Joshua Vecchione in the Orange County case, said gender is more than biological. Someone may have the body of a woman but the soul of a man.

    "These cases should be treated like any other child custody case," said Minter, an attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco. "These are kids with a mother and father who are divorcing and that's enough for the kids to have to deal with."

    -- Leanora Minai can be reached at minai@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8406.

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