Anti-Defamation League to honor trans pioneer Phyllis Frye at Houston concert.
By Marene Gustin
Eight years ago, Phyllis Randolph Frye became the first openly transgender judge in the country. But that accomplishment is hardly Frye’s only triumph, or the focus of her amazing story.
Frye will be one of four honorees at Houston in Concert Against Hate: Many Voices, One City, hosted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) at Jones Hall on April 4. The other honorees at the annual event, which features speakers, a silent auction, and a performance by the Houston Symphony, will be A.J. Durrani, Adrian Garcia, and Alfred Tribble.
“The Anti-Defamation League sought out civil-rights leaders in Houston who are on the ground doing the work to further ADL’s mission ‘to secure justice and fair treatment to all,’” says Bailey Player, ADL’s associate director of development. “Phyllis Frye was an obvious choice. Her work for the trans community, not only in Houston but across the country, speaks for itself. One only has to google ‘New York Times Phyllis Frye’ to read about the lifetime of work Phyllis has committed to making sure members of the trans community are treated with justice and [get] the respect that everyone deserves.”
Frye transitioned in 1976, after she was forced to resign from the military, disowned by her parents, divorced by her first wife, separated from her son, and lost job after job. It was her second wife who encouraged her to live openly as a woman, and who has stood by Frye for more than four decades now.
“I’ve been in the business of working in the LGBTQ community for decades,” Frye says. “I’ve spoken at the last two women’s marches and have been honored by more than my share, but the ADL award is something else because they have been at the forefront of the fight against all kinds of hatefulness. When they told me, it just really blew my socks off.”
Frye plans to bring her wife, her two law partners, and pioneering Houston activist Ray Hill to the event.
Frye, who is widely considered to be the grandmother of the trans movement, says coming out to her family was heartbreaking. “They still don’t know how to deal with it, and many of them have gone to their graves without accepting me. I was also run out of the military and blackballed by the engineering community.”
While struggling to make a life in Houston, Frye lobbied City Council members for four years to repeal an anti-cross-dressing ordinance, which they finally did in 1980. That sparked her desire to fight for the rights of all trans people, so she enrolled in law school at the University of Houston. Still, she faced rejection and isolation, even from the local gay community. After graduation, when no law firm would hire her, Frye began defending indigent people at the Harris County Courthouse. Eventually, in 2003 she founded her own firm, Frye, Benavidez, and O’Neil (liberatinglaw.com). She now focuses almost exclusively on LGBTQ clients, aiding them with name- and gender-marker changes on legal documents, as well as other issues.
In the 1980s, Annise Parker befriended Frye and invited her to become the first trans woman on the city’s lesbian softball team. Two decades later, when Parker became mayor in 2010, she appointed Frye as an associate municipal judge, where she still presides for a few nights each week.
At 70, Frye is very comfortable with her life—but there is one more battle looming on the horizon.
“If November comes and the Republicans [still have] a stranglehold on Texas, there will be another bathroom fight [in 2019],” she says. “I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I’ll be ready if it does.” She has already made plans for a very public arrest to launch the legal fight against any bathroom bill that passes.
“I’ve been using women’s bathrooms since the ’70s, and I’m not about to stop now.”
What: Houston in Concert Against Hate: Many Voices, One City
When: 6-10:30 p.m., April 4
Where: Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St.
This article appears in the April 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.