It’s been over a year since Dino Villarreal has seen the two boys he helped bring up since birth. The boys he took care of when they were sick. The boys with whom he played basketball and rode bikes to the park. The boys who for their entire lives have called him dad.
In 2011, Villarreal broke up with Sandra Sandoval, the boys adoptive mother with whom he had lived for 17 years. “We always wanted children, like any couple would want children. Sandra had the opportunity to adopt them and so we did and they became my kids just as much as they were her kids.”
Sandoval adopted the boys as a legally single woman. Villarreal, who is a transgender man, was not named as a parent on the adoption papers. “I regret never having signed any papers saying they would be legally mine. Back then I never thought we would be separated or the kids would be taken away from me,” he told Out In SA.
Even after he had broken off with Sandoval, Villarreal continued caring for the boys, now aged 9 and 11. He took them to school every day and picked them up and cared for them in the family home.
“In November 2013 [Sandoval] decided she was no longer going to let me see my kids,” Villarreal recalls. “She never told me, she told a family member to tell me.”
Villarreal says Sandoval told her family she left him because of his gender identity. She also cut the children off from Villarreal’s family and members of her family who still speak to him.
“It was OK for 17 years for her to be with me the way I am,” says Villarreal. “Now she wants to take my children from me because I’m not good enough to be their father. Doesn’t she know she’s hurting them as much as she’s hurting me?
“From the beginning I told her who I was and she was OK with it. We continued to have our relationship and lived as husband and wife for 17 years. Through those years we raised our kids together and did everything that a married couples would do — buy a house, buy vehicles. We were always introduced as husband and wife and I was always introduced as father to my children.”
Losing his family and the life he had with them has taken a toll on Villarreal. For the past year he’s been pursuing parental rights via litigation. On January 21, he ended up in the Fourth Court of Appeals defending himself as a male and a father who deserves visitation rights.
In a previous hearing before District Court Judge Janet Littlejohn in January 2014, Sandoval’s lawyers successfully argued that Villarreal did not have standing to be named the father of the children because he is not biologically male and because he had not sought a name change or sex change.
“For ten years from 1999 to 2009 the rule in Texas said that gender was fixed at birth,” attorney Deanna L. Whitley, who’s representing Villarreal, told Out In SA.
The ruling Whitley is referring to is the 1999 case of Christie Lee Littleton Van de Putte, a San Antonio-born transgender woman who, after her husband died, was denied spousal rights by Judge Phil Hardberger of the Fourth Court of Appeals because she was born a man and therefore illegally married.
“At the time we brought Dino’s case, there was no court that had interpreted it,” says Whitley. “So we had to devise a legal argument that was consistent with the law. And we did that.”
In February 2014, while Villarreal’s case was pending, a case came out of the 13th District Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi that issued a landmark opinion in favor of Houston trans widow Nikki Araguz, ruling that transgender people should not be denied the right to marry a person of the opposite gender because of the sex they were classified as at birth.
Villarreal has since filed and secured a name change but aside from his gender identity, his standing as a parent and father also must be secured.
“In Texas Family Law we have what’s called the General Standing statute for people who have played a significant role in the life of the child,” Whitley says. “We have pled all of that for Dino. . . Additionally, we’ve asked he be adjudicated as the father because there’s a huge difference in the law in being a parent versus a non-parent.”
Whitley believes Villarreal’s case went well before the Fourth Court. “I thought the justices asked excellent questions. I believe they were very cognizant of the importance of the case. All of them were all very aware of the change in the law from 2009. There wasn’t much question that the law had changed and that people for now are able to change their name and gender.”
Villarreal now awaits the Fourth Court’s verdict. “It won’t be any longer than three months and it could be considerably less than that,” says Whitley. “The court has a huge docket and I know they’ll give careful consideration to this case.”
When asked what he would say to his boys if he could see them, Villarreal replies with tears in his eyes, “Tell them I love them and I miss them.”