By Brandon Wolf
On October 13, Sissy Farenthold will introduce her friend Phyllis Frye at a tribute in the Crystal Ballroom of the Rice Hotel. In recognition of Frye’s tireless efforts, The Montrose Center is sponsoring the event, entitled Out for Good, in her honor.
Today, both women have become Texas political legends. But 38 years ago, on June 25, 1978, when they first crossed paths, Frye was not a legend. She was a transgender pioneer, trying to earn a law degree at the University of Houston (UH) Law School. The relatively unknown activist was attending the historic LGBT Houston Town Meeting I. Farenthold, one of the most popular political speakers in Texas, delivered the keynote address at the event.
On that June day, Frye could never have imagined that nearly four decades later she would be sharing a stage with Farenthold—much less being honored as a legend herself.
Different Worlds, Common Causes
On that day in 1978, Frye was frustrated and angry. Years before, she had been bounced from her engineering career. Despite a degree from Texas A&M, she had been blackballed by her profession and could not find work.
Finally, Frye enrolled in the University of Houston’s popular joint business administration/law degree program. She felt it would give her both business skills and the ability to defend herself as a transgender woman.
Frye and Farenthold didn’t get to talk to each other that day in 1978 due to Farenthold’s busy schedule. But the speaker already knew about the problems Frye was having with the perennial “bathroom issue,” thanks to Farenthold’s friend who taught at the UH Law School.
The two women finally met in the early 1990’s at a fundraiser in Farenthold’s apartment for homeless LGBT teens. They come from very different worlds, but they support the same political and social causes. In their own ways, each has left an indelible mark on Texas politics, and made a difference in the lives of countess people.
Farenthold’s Formative Years
Mary Frances Tarlton was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1926. She became known as “Sissy” because her brother couldn’t pronounce “sister.” As people got used to her brother’s mispronunciation, the nickname stuck.
Farenthold comes from a long line of lawyers and judges. Her grandfather, Judge Benjamin D. Tarlton Sr., served as a chief justice of the Texas Court of Civil Appeals, a state legislator, and a University of Texas Law School professor. Her father, B. Dudley Tarlton, was also an attorney and Democratic Party activist.
As a child, Farenthold accompanied her father to countless county election events. She quickly learned the names of every Corpus Christi city council member. Reflecting back on her interest in politics, Farenthold says she loved meeting new people and learning first-hand what life was like for them.
In high school, she made her first run for office, hoping to become a student government president. “I lost miserably,” she says. “A football player won the election. I thought I had put together a coalition, but it wasn’t enough to help me win the office.”
In 1943, Farenthold entered the exclusive all-women’s Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She continued with graduate studies at the University of Texas School of Law, and was one of only seven women in her graduating class of 1949.
A Mother of Five, Acquainted with Grief
Farenthold married in 1950, and had five children between 1951 and 1956. The last two children were twins. She still cherishes a colorful ceramic piece with five young figures joined in a circle and seemingly floating in the air. “This was the centerpiece on the dining room table. It has five figures, and I had five children,” she recalls.
She pauses for a few moments, somewhat distracted, and then says, “I lost two of them,” as her voice trails off. One of the twins, Vincent, died in 1960 after bleeding to death from an accidental fall at home. The surviving twin, Jimmy, never got over the loss—the two had been inseparable. After years of self-medication, he disappeared in 1989 at the age of 36 and was never found.
Farenthold had also lost her brother Sonny when she was three. He died from surgical complications after swallowing a coin. Remembering the life-changing impact that his death had on her parents, Farenthold was determined that she would not become a prisoner of grief.
Entering the Political Arena
Farenthold spent the early years of the 1960s raising her four remaining children. Some of them had inherited her dyslexia and required special attention with their schoolwork. They also had to deal with the inherited hemophilia that had caused Vincent’s death. Emergency rooms became familiar places to her children, and Farenthold’s first impassioned organizing effort was to fight for safe playground equipment at their schools.
In 1960, Farenthold worked on the Texas campaign for John F. Kennedy. She followed that with coordinating the campaign of a cousin. Eager to establish her own identity, she became the director of legal aid for Nueces County in 1965.
In 1968, at the age 42, she was persuaded to run for the Texas House of Representatives. It would be years before she discovered that she had been encouraged to run simply to siphon off votes from another primary candidate.
Farenthold looks back on that first campaign as “a year of torment.” A shy person, she was terrified to walk up to people and ask them to vote for her. But Farenthold’s intellect was her one great quality that began to attract supporters.
She had grown up in one of the three poorest areas in Texas. As a child, she had met so many people who lived in poverty. Later, as her county’s director of legal aid, she saw first-hand the difficulties of their lives. She was sensitive, caring, a good listener, and the quintessential “bleeding heart.”
Not only did she win that Texas House primary, she went on to become the only woman in the Texas House in 1968—at the same time that Barbara Jordan was the only woman in the Texas Senate. Farenthold was re-elected in 1970.
She recalls the most contentious issue during her two terms was an effort to tax food. Familiar with the realities of poverty, Farenthold’s determination succeeded in killing that bill.
In 1971, Farenthold led a group of Texas lawmakers (who had been dubbed “The Dirty 30”) calling for a special investigation of the speaker of the House. The speaker and his lieutenants were accused of trading votes for valuable stocks, which they later sold at a considerable profit. Although the speaker manipulated the House investigation, a Travis County grand jury indicted him and two colleagues.
The reform movement launched Farenthold’s first gubernatorial campaign in 1972. She shocked political pundits when she received more votes than two well-known, well-financed officials in the Democratic primary. Although she lost to Dolph Briscoe in a runoff election, that visibility propelled her into consideration for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination at the 1972 Democratic National Convention.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention debacle in Chicago led to “the McGovern reforms” that included having delegates nominate the vice-presidential candidate. Female delegates at the convention pushed for Farenthold.
Activist Gloria Steinem nominated her, and several newly active women’s movement leaders lobbied for her election. Farenthold got more delegate votes than Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, Birch Bayh of Indiana, and even Jimmy Carter of Georgia. But after several roll calls, Senator Thomas Eagleton was elected.
A short while later, Eagleton was dumped after a revelation that he had undergone electroshock treatments for depression. Instead of offering the vice-presidential candidacy to Farenthold, the convention’s second choice, Kennedy relative Sargent Shiver, was chosen by the Democratic National Committee.
The media dubbed her the “first woman to be nominated for vice president.” Actually, two others had had their names put into nomination as gestures of affection, and Judge Sarah T. Hughes had once been nominated, but declined. Farenthold is careful to say she was “the first woman’s nomination that actually came to a vote.”
In 1974, Farenthold again ran for governor, but once again Dolph Briscoe won the primary and the general election. From 1976 to 1980, Farenthold was the president of the all-women’s Wells College in Aurora, New York.
In 1980, she returned to Houston and opened a private law practice. She also taught at the UH law school. She has fought for women’s rights, LGBT rights, and immigrant rights—and against nuclear power, AIDS discrimination, and human-rights abuses.
It Always Comes Back to the Bathrooms
Farenthold can identify with Frye’s frustration about bathrooms. When Farenthold attended UT’s law school, she was one of 7 women in a graduating class of 231. There were bathrooms for male students, but female students were told to use the staff bathrooms.
When she joined the state legislature, there were bathrooms for male legislators, but none for women. Once again she used the staff bathrooms.
“I could practice law, but I could not serve on a jury,” Farenthold explains. Until the 1950s, it was determined that it would be too expensive to outfit the jury deliberation rooms with female bathrooms.
“The late Phyllis Schlafly helped stop the Equal Rights Amendment for women by claiming it would force people to use unisex bathrooms,” Farenthold remembers, shaking her head with a sense of distaste. Last fall, Farenthold saw Houston’s equal-rights ordinance fail because of irrational fears about transgender women using women’s bathrooms.
An LGBT Advocate
Farenthold first met gay activist and Texas Southern University law professor Gene Harrington in 1972 while he was organizing a campaign event for her gubernatorial campaign. Years later, when Harrington and Farenthold were organizing an AIDS-related benefit with Dominique de Menil, Harrington was asked how long he had known Farenthold. He replied, “From the time her hair was dark and I was in the closet.”
Harris County Democratic party chair Lane Lewis remembers a fundraiser that Farenthold organized at her apartment, when he was the executive director of the AIDS Equity League. The event honored Dr. Adan Rios.
Harrington died in 2002. “Every time there is a victory for the LGBT community, the first thing I think of is how excited Gene would have been,” Farenthold says.
While president of Wells College, Farenthold became friends with several lesbian teachers. “I saw how hurt they were by Anita Bryant’s smear campaign,” she says. From that point on, LGBT rights became yet another cause she would fight for.
During her time at Wells, Farenthold got a call from Ray Hill asking her to keynote the Houston LGBT community’s Houston Town Meeting I event in 1978. Because it was a quick trip out of town on a weekend, she only had time to slip in, give her speech, and leave again for the airport.
“I thought there might be two or three hundred people,” Farenthold recalls. When she came out from behind the stage curtain, she was utterly stunned to see 5,000 people jump to their feet and give her a lengthy ovation. She gave a rousing speech that energized the Town Meeting participants, and a transcript of the address indicates 14 lengthy interruptions for applause.
Age Is Just a Number
Sitting across from Farenthold at a table in her Lamar Tower apartment, it doesn’t seem possible she will soon turn 90. Rather, she seems to be re-defining what “90” is.
Farenthold is not slowing down. When taking calls on her smartphone, she prefers to greet callers live rather than having the call roll to voicemail. If she is occupied, she answers quick questions before promising to call back.
Her beautiful apartment is filled with interesting objects from abroad. A very impressive chest against one wall is actually a centuries-old Basque portable altar that was carried by wealthy travelers so they could practice their faith while on the road.
One wall of the living room has five large purple abstract paintings on paper, all in a row. “I like purple” she says. “But not overdone.”
Her public rooms are meticulous. However, the inner sanctum—her office—reveals that Farenthold is more interested in spending time working for justice than in maintaining a pristine work space.
She eyes the room and smiles. Then with resignation, she laughs and says, “When I was president of Wells College, I always admonished the students to be organized.”
Nine decades of living have not changed Farenthold’s core passions, and her greatest joy is still meeting new people and talking to them about their lives.
She may be a legend to her many fans, but it’s not a title she has bestowed upon herself. To her, “Sissy Farenthold” is just a woman doing what she believes is right, fighting against unfairness, and helping those who cannot always fight for themselves.
What: Out for Good 2016
When: October 13, 7 p.m.
Where: The Crystal Ballroom Houston, 909 Texas Ave.
View a slideshow of Sissy Farenthold’s lifetime of achievements below.
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Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.