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Swinging for the Fences: Houston’s Phyllis Frye Paved the Way for the Modern Transgender Movement

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By Kim Hogstrom
Photo by Kim Hogstrom

“Phyllis didn’t work out for the team,” Houston’s former mayor Annise Parker tells OutSmart. “Phyllis always swung for the fences.”

Parker is referring to America’s first out, transgender judge, Phyllis Randolph Frye. As a friend of Parker’s, Frye played on a lesbian softball team Parker was coaching at the time. The comment amounted to only a few moments in the conversation, but it held significant insight.

Phyllis Frye is a woman who has always swung for the fences.

As a result of Frye’s 40 years of fierce courage and determination, she has earned the title “Grandmother of the Transgender Movement” and is largely responsible for adding the “T” to the inclusive “LGBT” term we use today. That is to say, Frye was the face and force behind the inclusion of transgender issues in the gay and lesbian civil rights movement. Now the T is recognized worldwide, forever. For good.

And, we proudly add, Phyllis Frye is ours.

“It was a depressing and difficult time,” says Frye regarding her early efforts for inclusion in the civil rights movement of the 1970s. “One of the saddest parts was having to fight my own gay and lesbian brothers and sisters for recognition,” the judge states quietly. 

“In the 1970s, the national gay and lesbian movement was working with the objective to assimilate into society,” explains Mara Keisling, a trans woman and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington DC. NCTE was founded in 2003 by transgender activists who recognized the need to advance equality.

The Third Time Is the Charm: Though the national conference didn’t welcome the transgender community at the 1979 March on Washingon, Texans did. That’s Phylllis Frye, left of center holding the American flag. Transgender people were not welcome at the second march in 1987, so in protest Frye stopped the transgender contingent in the middle of the parade. At the third march, the “T” was added. Photo: Blase DiStefano
The Third Time Is the Charm: Though the national conference didn’t welcome the transgender community at the 1979 March on Washingon, Texans did. That’s Phylllis Frye, left of center holding the American flag. Transgender people were not welcome at the second march in 1987, so in protest Frye stopped the transgender contingent in the middle of the parade. At the third march, the “T” was added. Photo: Blase DiStefano

“The movement started excluding people who [put the goal of assimilation at risk],” Keisling continues. “Transgender people were a part of that exclusion, but it wasn’t limited to us. The movement also excluded drag queens, bears, leather daddies, and anyone they thought might not fit in. Slowly, over more than 30 years, that changed.”

The change to which Keisling is referring came about in large part due to Frye’s contention that homophobia and transphobia sprang from the same root of ignorance and hate—simply two horns on the same snorting, slobbering, charging bull.

Not all the advocates of the time were lacking empathy. Ray Hill, the “godfather of Houston’s LGBT movement,” played a notable role on the national level moving LGBT civil rights forward. He went to bat for the inclusion of his dear friend Phyllis Frye, but neither of them could turn the tide—at first.

“When we organized the Gay and Lesbian March on Washington in October 1979, the transgender community was not welcomed by the national conference. But Phyllis was on a crusade,” Hill explains.

“She went to the march anyway, and marched with Texas. Then, when we organized the second March on Washington in 1987, the transgender community was still not recognized [by the national conference]. This time, Phyllis marched with a transgender contingent, and in the middle of the parade, she made them all stop. Stop! Right there on the street in Washington. That sent a message that was heard in the highest reaches of the gay and lesbian movement.

“For the third Gay and Lesbian March on Washington in 1993, the ‘T’ was added and the transgender community was included,” Hill says with a sly smile and a twinkle in his eye.

The Early Years

Born Phillip Randolph Frye in the 1940s as the middle son of three children, Frye proved to be a remarkable youngster. Frye excelled in the Boy Scouts of America, was a celebrated cadet in the corps at Texas A&M University, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, and a multi-degreed engineer. “I was a man’s man, and I had a terrible potty mouth,” Frye says with a laugh. “I really played the game.”

Still, Frye knew at a young age that there was a different person inside: a person who enjoyed woman’s clothing, high heels, lovely hats, and things normally associated with womanhood. It would take years before she found her voice.

By 1972, while still in her 20s, Frye found life increasingly difficult. She was not out, and married her high-school girlfriend. It soon ended in divorce. She also suffered a debilitating discharge from the Army for the crime of “a compulsive need to wear woman’s clothing.” If that wasn’t enough, she was professionally blackballed as an engineer, lost several jobs, and perhaps cruelest of all, Frye’s family threw her away. “My mother and father went to their graves hating me, and my brother and sister are estranged to this day,” she says quietly.

The year 1976 marked a milestone for Frye and, as a consequence, for transgender people everywhere. The disconnect between Frye’s identity and appearance came to an end. “I was still presenting as Phillip when I married my second wife, but she also knew I was cross-dressing. What she didn’t know was to what degree I was transgender. Neither did I, actually.”

That’s when Frye’s remarkably compassionate new wife spoke out: “Living like this is making you nuts. 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,” Frye pauses for a long moment. “We’re celebrating our 43rd wedding anniversary next week,” she says, her brown eyes sparkling.

That same year—1976—Caitlyn Jenner, who famously transitioned in 2015, won global notoriety as an athlete at the summer Olympics. Jenner, with all of the recent accolades for her courage, came out nearly 40 years behind Phyllis Frye.

Life as a Woman

Always swinging for the fences, Frye sent letters to hundreds of friends, college mates, and family members to notify them that she was no longer Phillip, but Phyllis, and requesting their support during her transition. She also left fliers on the neighborhood homes to keep them informed.

“My wife and I had a home in Westbury, and we had a mortgage. We couldn’t just move and start over. So I started to transition,” the judge explains. Frye’s journey included hormone therapy, electrolysis, and some surgery. “I did not choose full sexual reconstructive surgery. For some, that’s important, but each person is different. Each person must make that decision,” she explains.

And Frye’s letters of outreach to friends and family? Her effort was met with a dark silence mingled with occasional disgust. And sadly, Houston’s Westbury neighborhood was not inclined to silence. Frye’s home was vandalized many times with paint and eggs, her tires were slashed, and the couple was harassed.

Fortunately, Frye was also studying for a legal degree at the time. “After I let the neighbors know about the transition, we received horrible, obscene phone calls,” Frye recalls. “But all of it stopped when I achieved my law degree. As a lawyer, they were frightened of me.”

It is with pride that the judge adds that things slowly changed in her neighborhood. Today, Frye has been elected to serve on the Westbury Civic Association Board of Directors for eight consecutive terms. “I am now a valued member of the community,” she states.

Armed with her law degree, Frye is now serving her sixth year as a municipal court judge for the city of Houston. In addition to her active personal life and commitment to public service, she was able to build a remarkable full-service law firm—Frye, Oaks, Benavidez, and O’Neil—dedicated to “serving the needs of the LGBTQI and supportive-straight community.”

The Defeat of Houston’s Equal-Rights Ordinance

According to the Kinder Institute’s 2016 Houston Area Survey released in April, 70 percent of area residents say it’s “very important” for Houston to pass an equal rights ordinance. Add another 16 percent who say it is “somewhat important,” and you get 86 percent of the population wants some form of LGBT civil-rights protections. Notably, the survey was conducted only a few months after the HERO ordinance failed. What the heck?

“I was furious,” Frye says. “When the ugly people started running that campaign with a child in a restroom with a predator—it was not true. That was a lie!”

According to PolitiFact, a highly regarded fact-checking website, “There are no known instances of criminals convicted of using transgender protections as cover in the United States.” 

PolitiFact Texas took the issue a step further. “It’s not accurate to say that transgender women are men. Though there is not universal agreement on this point, medical experts typically agree that a transgender person is someone who identifies differently from their assigned sex at birth. In short, a transgender woman is a woman, and not ‘a grown man pretending to be a woman.’”

“It made me mad to hear the HERO lie on TV and the radio over and over again,” remembers Frye, “but I couldn’t say anything, because I’m a City judge and it was a Houston city ordinance in debate. Besides that, we already have a restroom ordinance. It’s Houston’s Ordinance 28-20 and it’s been on the books since 1968.”

The ordinance to which Frye is referring mentions nothing about birth gender, and protects every citizen from a “calculated disturbance.” It reads: “It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly and intentionally enter any public restroom designated for the exclusive use of the sex opposite to such person’s sex without the permission of the owner, in a manner calculated to cause a disturbance.”

“We already have protections,” Frye continues. “In Texas, it’s a felony if it involves a child, whom the anti-HERO people were claiming were unprotected. It’s a crime that would result in serious jail time.”

With 86 percent of the population of Houston interested in the protections provided by HERO regarding race, age, pregnancy, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or military status, can we expect to give HERO a do-over? OutSmart contacted Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office for comment.

“Right now, Mayor Turner is focused on getting his budget passed, working on pension reform, and removal of the voter-imposed revenue cap,” the mayor’s director of communications responded in an email. 

What Now?

“We’ve made some headway, but there’s still a lot of work to do,” says Lou Weaver, a trans man representative with Equality Texas, a nonprofit agency dedicated to securing rights for LGBT Texans. “It’s important for us to speak out, to be visible, so we can create a culture of inclusion instead of fear. Phyllis has done a lot of work before us, and it’s an honor to stand on her shoulders,” Weaver concludes.

Appreciation for Frye’s honesty and courage is not limited to Texas. The National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington DC presented her with a lifetime achievement award in 2013. “Phyllis played a significant role in the movement, and laid a foundation that allows thousands of us to step up today,” says NCTE director Keisling. “We need Phyllis as long as we can have her,” she adds firmly.

It’s safe to say that Phyllis Frye’s eye for home runs has changed our culture. However, that same driving force is woven into the fabric of her character, observes Ray Hill. “Phyllis has lived her entire life with fearless honesty while reaching for the stars. It wasn’t enough for Phyllis to be a Boy Scout—she had to earn too many merit badges to fit on her sash,” he says.

“And it wasn’t enough for Phyllis to attend Texas A&M University—she had to be a commander in the corps. Then, she had to return to A&M as Phyllis, not Phil, in new red boots and brag about how much more fashionable they were than the cadets,’” Hill laughs.

“In the Army, Phyllis couldn’t just keep her panty hose in the closet like other people—she had to wear them, get caught, and get kicked out,” Hill continues his good-natured diatribe, grinning.

“And it wasn’t enough for Phyllis to earn two engineering degrees—she had to be an engineer with a tool pouch! When was the last time you saw an engineer with a tool pouch?” he asks, laughing out loud.

“It wasn’t enough for Phyllis to win over her neighborhood—she had to be elected to the civic association eight times. Today, she is not just a judge, she is an outstanding lawyer and a great judge. That, in a snapshot, is Phyllis Frye,” Hill concludes.

With a life like the one Frye has lived, what is her proudest achievement? “That I am no longer needed,” she responds without a moment’s thought. 

Frankly, Ms. Frye, we’re not so sure.

Kim Hogstrom is a guest writer to OutSmart magazine. She is also a documentary film producer and slave to a spoiled Chihuahua.

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