by Elize Villalobos
Every so often, sociopolitical situations come along that remind us that we must never take our civil rights for granted. For many people in the U.S., particularly people of color, religious minorities, LGBTQ+ folk, and anyone who falls within an intersection of those three umbrella groups, the months between the presidential election and today have served as a sobering reminder of the societal prejudices and institutional discrimination that still deny them the benefits of full equality in American society. Indeed, trans people, specifically, have continued to face setbacks this year. The news that Trump’s administration rolled back the Obama administration’s transgender bathroom policies, which allowed trans students to use whichever restroom matched their gender identity, was undoubtedly a blow to LGBT rights. However, even more sickening than this particular revival of institutionalized transphobia is the violence that the trans community continues to face: so far, ten transgender people have been murdered in 2017, most of whom were targeted simply because they were transgender. In light of these recent issues, as well as the other ongoing struggles of the transgender community, it is perhaps a natural reflex to want to take a moment to recognize a past leader of the trans rights movement so that we may be heartened and regain some hope and energy for the future.
Therefore, on that topic, it is a great pleasure to highlight Phyllis Frye, a transgender woman who has been one of the most instrumental figures in fighting for and furthering trans rights during the last several decades. I admit that I had not heard of Frye until she was recommended as a subject for this profile. However, upon researching her, I was completely awed by her story and courageous advocacy. A fitting dénouement to her storied career as an activist, in 2010, the mayor of Houston, Texas, Annise Parker, appointed Frye as a municipal court judge with unanimous consent from the city council. Although Frye is one of the first openly transgender judges to serve in the States, she says that she is aware of at least two other trans judges in other parts of the country, such as Vicki Kolakowski, who became a judge in California 15 days before Frye became one in Texas. Regardless, Frye’s accomplishment, as well as Kolakowski’s, is a milestone for the transgender community. As has been intimated in media coverage of Frye’s appointment, there is something approaching poetic justice in the fact that a woman who was once explicitly targeted by Houston law for simply existing as herself is now an authority thereof. Along with her judgeship, Frye manages the law firm Frye and Associates, which “provide[s] a variety of legal services for the LGBT and Straight-Allies community;” Frye herself now solely represents transgender people to help them navigate the unique legal difficulties that come with being trans.
However, as reassuring as it is to know of her present-day success, Frye’s story deserves to be told in its entirety. Born in the 1940s as Philip Frye, Frye initially appeared as a stereotypical, red-blooded American boy. In hindsight, Frye seems rather amused by the lengths she went to in order to assert Philip’s masculinity. According to Frye, Philip “was a man’s man, and [he] had a terrible potty mouth.” Although she couldn’t really put into words, and therefore could not truly understand, that she was trans at the time, Frye likens her experience as a boy to that of an actor giving the performance of a lifetime, joking that: “I was so good at being a guy that I should have won an Oscar.” For, despite Philip’s macho bravado, on the inside, he instinctively gravitated towards femininity and female modes of expression that were then strictly forbidden to him. While he engaged in male-coded behaviors and fulfilled boyish roles, he secretly wanted to act as a girl would; as Frye explains: “I was an extremely good Boy Scout — but I would have rather been in the Girl Scouts. I was the R.O.T.C. commander of my high school — but I would have rather been the head cheerleader. And I cross-dressed whenever I could, in private.” Of course, as with most trans people, the daily, continual performance of the incorrect gender was unhealthy and stifling to Philip. Yet, he had little choice in the matter. When his parents found his feminine clothing, he played along with their leading suggestion that he was going through a mere “phase.” Frye asserts that had her family had any idea that Philip’s cross-dressing was “the real thing, [Philip] would have been out of the house, and [he] would have been homeless.” Living within that sort of cultural and domestic environment, it is little surprise that even as Philip grew older, he remained unaware of the existence of transgender issues. As far as he knew, he was entirely alone.
Thus, living under this façade, with no way to reconcile his, or in fact her, identity with outside pressures, Philip eventually married, and he and his wife had a son during his junior year of college. During that time, he was once again caught cross-dressing, this time by his spouse. He had no recourse and was compelled to try to communicate his innate feelings about his gender. Their union lasted for a while yet, and after graduating, he joined the Army and moved to West Germany with his family. However, the strains that his ever emerging femininity placed on his spousal relationship caused the marriage to deteriorate, and he admitted to his superiors the reason behind the discord. He was then sent back to the U.S. in the hopes that he would be “cured” of his so-called “condition.” A common indignity and offense against queer and trans people, the conversion therapy that Frye was pressured to undergo was horrific; one technique involved the inducement of vomiting when wearing women’s clothing. Studies have shown that there is no evidence that conversion therapy works (not that it should be done anyway, were it effective); as a matter of fact, it is often psychologically harmful to LGBTQ youth. Unsurprisingly, then, Frye’s “treatment” was unsuccessful, and his wife consequently divorced him. The Army then gave Frye the option between resigning or being expelled; he chose the former and was given an honorable discharge because he had been open about his “transvestism.”
Soon thereafter, in 1972, Frye attempted suicide, a phenomenon that is, unfortunately, still all too common for LGBT youth today; those who do not have support groups are approximately eight times as likely to attempt suicide as those who do. However, Frye dislikes dwelling on this lowest point of her life, quite stoically referring to it as “the ultimate in self-pity.” Instead, she prefers to focus on the inspirational journey, or “war stories,” as she calls her remarkable experiences, that followed that terrible incident. As Philip worked to recover his health, he became a born-again Christian, but even more important than his newfound faith was the beginning of his relationship with his second wife, Trish, to whom Frye has been married for more than 40 years. During an interview for the Texas Standard, she acknowledged that Trish “is a very private person, and I intentionally don’t talk about her much except to say that she is the love of my life, and she’s my best friend … and we have forged a life together.” Of course, Trish’s tolerance of her then-husband’s ostensible cross-dressing is an undeniably significant, moving expression of love and acceptance, the meaningfulness of which Frye has addressed. As she tells it, Trish simply stated: “‘You need to be yourself. Let’s try you being you, and I will see if I can hang on.’ … I knew it would either send us flying apart, or bring us closer together. Soon after that, I started my transition.” Thus, in 1976, and finally with the support of someone she loved, Philip began to always wear feminine clothing, and she changed her name to Phyllis.
However, Frye’s transition came at a cost. After informing her neighbors that she was becoming a woman, her home was vandalized on different occasions. The house was egged and marked with graffiti, her car’s tires were slashed, and someone even left a burning, soiled diaper on the porch. She and Trish were also hounded by “horrible, obscene” phone calls, and Frye had difficulty in finding and keeping jobs. Yet, perhaps the most crushing consequence she faced was her parents’ and family’s rejection of her. Just as she had intuited when she was the teenaged, cross-dressing Philip, her parents completely cut her out of their lives when she told them who she truly was. Reconciliation with her relatives was one of the few things which Frye could not accomplish, though certainly through no fault of her own; in a 2016 interview, Frye revealed: “My mother and father went to their graves hating me, and my brother and sister are estranged to this day.”
Even so, despite all of these hardships, Frye had, to use a colloquialism, just started to truly find herself. Although some might have considered relocating to a neighborhood in which he or she would be unknown, Frye’s reasoning for coming out to her neighbors and for firmly staying put within her mostly hostile neighborhood of Westbury was rooted in both pragmatism and principle. Firstly, she and Trish had a mortgage on their house, so moving elsewhere was not financially feasible. However, Frye maintains that attempting to completely escape others’ negative attention is an ultimately futile endeavor for a trans person, pointing out that no matter where one goes, “you definitely have the people who are going to be ugly to you once you’re found out.” Furthermore, there were “a few people that were nice” to Frye and Trish in their neighborhood as well as “a few people sitting on the fence, just kind of watching and [who] haven’t decided which way to go.” To Frye, it was preferable to be familiar with the people in her community, good, neutral, or bad, instead of moving to a place which potentially could have had even less support or tolerance than was in Westbury. In any case, thanks to Trish and the pure rightness of her new, authentic lifestyle, Frye had acquired newfound motivation to not only continue living as the person she truly was and is, but to also speak out on behalf of other people like her, who were by then sometimes referred to as “transgenderist.” She explained the powerful effect of fully embracing her identity in a 1976 speech, saying: “I put on my skirts five weeks ago and have not taken them off … During the past five weeks, I have felt normal for the first time in 28 years.”
Of course, once Frye was able to realize her gender identity, the personal inevitably began to merge with the political. Social intolerance invariably politicizes and marginalizes non-normative identities and minorities while reducing their demands for equality and dignity to petty “identity politics.” In the 1970s, one of the most tangibly threatening policies pertaining to Frye’s identity was an ordinance that criminalized cross-dressing, and she immediately fought against it upon her transition. Fortunately, the ordinance was repealed in 1980; by then, she had begun to study law for the express purpose of defending herself legally from transphobia and discrimination. By the time she finished law school, she had begun to physically transition as well. Now armed with legal expertise, Frye recalls that the neighborhood harassment came to an end because, “As a lawyer, they were frightened of me.” On the other hand, employers were still unwilling to hire her; nonetheless Frye was able to make a living representing impoverished clients for whom judges appointed counsel. She continued to exercise her voice and became politically involved with the Democratic party, League of Women voters, and the local gay and lesbian caucus.
However, it was the advent of the Internet in the 90s that most significantly fostered a more cohesive trans community; it allowed transgender people to connect and share their stories, but, crucially, it also facilitated communication between leaders who would otherwise have been isolated from each other. In 1992, Frye summoned leaders to a Houstonian hotel for the first International Conference on Trans Law and Employment Policy. Subsequent conferences allowed leaders of the movement to contemplate upon and explain legalities that were specifically related to trans issues. However, one of their most forward-thinking, if less tangibly applicable, achievements was to create an International Bill of Gender Rights that explicitly stated that “All human beings have the right to define their own gender identity regardless of chromosomal sex, genitalia, assigned birth sex or initial gender role.” Through these conferences, Frye’s role as an organizer and impact as a motivational speaker within the transgender rights movement was on full display, and her inspirational speeches urged strength and personal activism in the face of adversity and prejudice: “You have no reason for staying scared. You have no reason for staying closeted. You have no reason for not being the true person that you are. This is our decade. Make it happen for you now.”
Some people may be surprised to know that the trans rights movement was not initially accepted as part of the broader LGBT rights movement; transgender people were essentially viewed as political liabilities, or “a politically embarrassing subgroup,” by many cisgender gay and lesbian leaders. For instance, the Human Rights Campaign accepted the exclusion of trans people when Congress drafted the federal Employment Nondiscrimination Act (which, as it turns out, did not and has not ever been passed into law). Therefore, Frye’s advocacy involved not only challenging heteronormative, cissexist discrimination and prejudice, but also fighting to cement the tenuous status of transgender people, or the “T,” within the LGBT community itself. She intelligently and passionately argued that homophobia and transphobia stemmed from the same essential ignorance, fear, and hatred of the “other” that existed within the context of prevailing cultural attitudes towards gender and sexuality. Additionally, she made the point that many trans folk, such as Frye herself, are queer or gay in their sexual orientations. It seemed clear to her, then, that trans and gay rights were intrinsically complementary causes.
True to her activist philosophy, she made her point in bold fashion at the second Gay and Lesbian March on Washington that took place in 1987. Neither the first or second march recognized trans people as allies or advocated for them, but Frye, leading a group of her transgender peers, blocked the procession’s path as a form of protest. Such a stand evidently made a difference; the third march officially included the trans community. However, there was still a decided lack of trans representation in queer advocacy groups, and so, to try to rectify the situation, Frye and other leaders of the movement started a transgender lobbying group in Washington, D.C. In the mid-90s, the trans caucus joined forces with the bisexual caucus to, as Frye puts it, “carry each other’s water.” Truly, the amount of work done and meetings held cannot be fully put down for the purpose of this profile; let it be known, though, that Frye tirelessly committed herself to the slow, hard work that is necessary to effecting lasting change. However, by the early 2000s, Frye understandably began to want to live her life in relative peace and quiet. Therefore, once fellow activist Mara Keisling founded the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2003, Frye was able to rest easy knowing that “‘there was a … passing of the baton.”
Overall, there cannot be said to be a single, definitive achievement of or conclusion to Phyllis Frye’s legacy. Instead, she had many impressive accomplishments that encompassed all aspects of furthering trans rights; it is quite touching to consider her journey from fighting to legalize her existence and gender expression as a trans woman, to her holding an important, respected civic position as a judge. However, the more things change, the more they stay the same. It must be acknowledged that transphobia is still quite alive today, and it manifests itself in both blatant and insidious ways. As a matter of fact, while doing research for this profile, there was a perturbingly crass, transphobic headline that was the seventh result on Google for “Phyllis Frye judge.” However, if Frye is proof of anything, it is that one must not stop believing in the possibility a brighter tomorrow, nor stop striving to make that possibility a reality. Her success helped lay a framework within which other trans people may survive and thrive; Frye has said that she hopes that other trans people will become judges, and history may be made this year with Henry Sias, who could become the first openly trans man to serve as a judge. So, while our current political landscape may seem quite grim, I hope that at least some of you will be able to gain inspiration from her remarkable story and the positive change that she helped effect. All of us must continue to support and affirm equality and acceptance for all people; in doing so, we honor the sacrifices and hard work of people of those who came before and have entrusted us with precious rights to defend and champion.
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