RICHMOND, Va. – 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.
Now authorities in Virginia, where same-sex marriages are illegal, are weighing whether to file misdemeanor charges against the couple, Antonio E. Blount, 31, and Justin L. McCain, 18. An announcement is expected this week.
A prosecutor says the decision to press charges could turn on whether the pair knowingly misled officials when they applied for a license and later, traveled to a courthouse for a ceremony. If the bride was transgender, and identified as a woman, it is unclear whether the marriage would be considered illegal.
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.
Davis 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 has not commented publicly since the ceremony, and The Associated Press was not able to locate either person. Davis said it 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.
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.
How a court might view the case isn't clear. In 1999, a Texas court threw out a wrongful death lawsuit a transgender woman filed after the death of her husband, ruling that while the plaintiff had undergone a sex-change operation, she was actually a man and her marriage invalid. But in 2004, a Kansas court ruled in favor of a male-to-female transsexual who identified as a woman to apply for marriage.
Newport News investigators will decide whether there was false information on the marriage license application, said Newport News Commonwealth's Attorney Howard Gwynn. Though Davis said applicants must swear to the truth of the information on their marriage license, the application mentioned "groom" and "bride," not male and female.
That has been changed to say "male applicant," and "female applicant," Davis said.