Phyllis Frye: I Make Sure to Include the Asterisk (Part II)
We didn't march in the second parade. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I was scared to march in the second parade. It went without incident. It was only about fifteen people that showed up and walked down the street carrying signs that said they were gay. Back then, that was a big statement. I didn't march because of the cross dressing ordinance. I didn't want to get arrested.
I was also trying to get into law school. Law school was really an accident. I was unemployed and I was trying to figure out a way to earn income. Since no one would hire me, I decided that I would go back to school. I had two engineering degrees, and I decided to go back to school and get a masters in business. I could get the GI Bill and hopefully some of the middle managers for other companies would see that I was not as queer as they thought I was and maybe I could get a job. I researched Texas Southern University, the University of Houston and a couple of other places. I discovered that some of the schools had recently put together a joint degree program.
At the University of Houston, where I ended up going, the business school and the law school had entered into an agreement in which if you enrolled in both at the same time and got accepted for both at the same time, the law school would recognize the business MBA course curricula to fulfill its electives, and the business school would recognize the law school's courses to fulfill its business electives. So that's how I ended up going to law school. I figured that I could go to law school and get the GI Bill for a longer period of time since I was unemployed. And if I became a lawyer, maybe some of our neighbors would quit bothering us. And that's the only reason I became a lawyer.
Dealing with Discrimination
Business school was nice. The people there were part-time students who were busy with their lives. I made some friends there and by and large didn't have any problems with business school. Law school was different because they were all full-time students who didn't have jobs. It was really rough. A lot of the people were just flat mean. It was a very traumatic experience. The faculty was great. We had restroom problems. They would assign me a couple of restrooms, but of course they were nowhere near my classes were or the law library. We finally negotiated a deal that allowed me to use three of the women's restrooms on campus and whoever was bothered could use the rest. Only five people out of the whole student body had complained.
In my second year of law school, I started a group called Law Students Friends of Gays* (the asterisk was meant to signify inclusion of all GLBT people). At about that time, it was starting to dawn on me that transgenders weren't necessarily always welcome in the gay community, and lesbians were also starting to clamor that they were being left out with all the attention on gays. So I made sure the asterisk was part of the name. We had presentations and sponsored candidates as well. We had a lot of candidates for the different districts come and speak at the law school sponsored by our organization. We ended up having to fight the Young Americans for Freedom because they were busy trying to get the student senate at the university to not allow us $250.00 in student services funds. We won. Some students came to our house one night when I wasn't here. They were banging on the windows and making all kinds of threats. They scared Trish half to death. I came home that night, and Trish had called some neighbors over. The cops had just arrived, and she was so terrified that she was holding our unloaded rifle to use as a club. I sold that rifle shortly after that. It just terrified her.
I was also fighting with the Christian Legal Society because I figured that I was entitled to go since I was Christian. They didn't want me there, and they ended up dividing into two groups: the groups that would pray with Phyllis and the groups that wouldn't pray with Phyllis. By the time law school was over, I had the Christian Legal Society put on a campus suspension and probation that lasted for several years. When I left, our very small group pretty much died because there were very few of us that were willing to come out of the closet back then in law school from 1978 to 1981.
I did my internship at the District Attorney's office because I knew no one would hire me, and none of the gay lawyers would even mentor me. That still kind of sticks in my craw. With all the work I was doing in the community, of all the gay lawyers in the this town, not one of them would mentor me, hire me as a legal assistant or anything at all. So I did my internship at the DA's office just to get some courtroom experience. It was also at that time that I was lobbying to get rid of the cross dressing ordinance. That was repealed in August of 1980 I have a copy of the repeal on my wall along with a copy of a certificate of appreciation from Mayor Whitmire. Above those, there is Phyllis Randolph Frye Day signed by Mayor Brown on the twentieth anniversary of the repeal of that law.
I started an Amway business because no one would give me any work. The gay lawyers wouldn't give me any help, but the gay bar owners did. Andy Mills (who is the manager of Mary's), the guy who ran the Exile, the guy who ran the French Quarter movie house, the guy who ran the Copa, the guy who ran Numbers, the person who ran Dirty Sally's, the Chicken Shack and many others gave me a lot of help. They all bought their cleaning supplies from me, which helped me and Trish survive financially.
At the time, Tom Rourke (who is an architect) had his own firm and he was a very nice man. He hired me to do engineering work for the architecture firm. So I was doing that and the Amway business, and I was also a member of the Montrose Business Guild and ended up being its president. I ended up attacking that group because it was being run by a group of homosexuals that were in the closet. They were business people who wanted gay bucks, but they didn't want to stand up for the gay community. We were also planning for the 1988 Republican convention here in Houston. That was the convention where the police on horseback went after the demonstrators. A couple of years before that, some planning was going on for the convention. There was a lot of talk about the Republican Party cutting out the GLBT community of any involvement in the convention at all. I felt that as a business guild, we should take a stand saying that gay business is good for everybody. Well, the board of directors didn't want to come out of the closet and lose their straight clients. So we had a fight and I resigned.
So I had architectural work and the Amway business going. At about that time, the Reagan recession of 1982 finally hit Houston in 1986. The housing industry died, and along with that went my architectural work. The bars also took a nose dive because people didn't have discretionary bucks to go out and party, so they quit buying their cleaning supplies from me.
Her First Case
When I graduated from law school and got my license, my ego was really beaten down. No one from the gay legal profession would hire me. I had the Amway business, and it wasn't making tons of money but it was at least making some money. So that's what I did for the next several years. But then in 1986 I got a call from a gay man who was in the Air Force and assigned at Ellington Air Force Base at the time. He had been arrested for DWI outside of gay bar. I think Ray Hill referred him to me, I don't remember. But it would certainly be like Ray. He wanted to know if I could represent him in the criminal courts and get him a plea bargain. He would plead guilty just so that there would be no publicity about it in the papers and he wouldn't be thrown out of the Air Force.
So this young man in the Air Force called me up in October 1986 and asked me to plea bargain for him if he plead guilty. I was thinking to myself, "Well I don't see know I can screw up a plea bargain with a guilty plea." He asked how much it would cost, and I think I said $600.00 and that I wanted cash. He met me at the courthouse and I called Ray. I told Ray that I knew that he wasn't an attorney but he had experience in these matters and knew what was going on. I told him I was going to talk to the District Attorney to get a plea bargain and I wanted to make sure that they weren't blowing wind up my skirt. I wanted to make sure that they would offer a good plea bargain. I paid Ray fifty bucks to come stand in the hall outside the office and listen to what was going on. Ray said that the plea bargain was very reasonable when I came out of the office. Well that was my first client!
As soon as I left I had cash in hand and went over to "TWIT" ("This Week in Texas") because Chuck Patrick, the editor, and his lover were fine men, were doing me a favor. They had been giving me a lot of ink in TWIT's news section. Almost anything that I wrote would be printed. I bought an ad. I was really hurting for bucks at the time. Well I knew that even if my quarter page ad didn't run all the time, I was still listed in the back of the magazine in the directory. And that's where most people looked for businesses. So I would buy a quarter page ad, and I would not renew it until they took my name out of the directory. Then I would buy another quarter page ad to get back in the directory again. So I was getting about two months worth of listing in the directory for paying for one week of advertising. But that's all I could afford.
I met a wonderful, brilliant artist who did all their work by the name of Randy Rool. We lost him to AIDS. I also met Blaise deStefano who is still with "Outsmart." He's a great guy. I was really in the thick of it all at that time, so I started practicing law. I was also very active with the political caucus at that time. I did not found the political caucus and I was not a beginning member, but I was an active member before the end of the first year of the caucus's existence. So I ended meeting a lot of judges because we used to screen them. When I would go looking for court appointments, the judges knew me and would give me appointments. When I would go to other judges that didn't know me, I would refer them to the judges that did and they would get a call. I ended up getting a lot of court- appointed work for a number of years.
I was also involved with the state Democratic Party. I had gotten active in the women's movement in Houston. One of my neighbors got me involved in the League of Women Voters, and through them I met Marilyn Whitehead. She ran for City Council against Lewis Macey back before we had single member districts. She ran on the platform of forming single member districts. I also met Poppy Northcutt and Nikki Van Hightower at that time. Nikki succeeded Poppy as the women's liason to the mayor who was Fred Hoffheinz. That position was renewed when Mayor McConn took office. There was a huge rally down at the City Hall, and I was there and making lots of friends in the women's community. They knew that I was out transgendered, and they were really liberal, radical feminists. They weren't about to turn their noses up at me because I was someone who was showing up, licking envelopes and putting on mailing labels. Then I met Mary Keegans in 1978, which was the year that the International Women's Conference met in Houston at the Colloseum. I was a volunteer to that, and I met Eleanor Holmes Norton who I saw again three weeks ago in Washington, D.C. If Jimmy Carter had been re-elected, Eleanor Holmes Norton would probably be on the United States Supreme Court.
But for a few things, many things in this world could change. If it weren't for the Reagan years, Nikki Van Hightower would probably have been elected U.S. Senator instead of Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Also like when the Supreme Court anointed George W. Bush to our President. That sonofabitch was not elected. If the media had counted the votes that Gore wanted counted, then Bush would have won. But if they had re- counted all of them, which is what Bush was saying should be done if anything, Gore would have won. So many twists in our country could have gone so greatly the other way.
I also met Bella Abzug. She was one of the first kick-ass women from New York State in the House of Representatives. She always wore a hat, which also became my symbol down at the courthouse. I started wearing hats. I met all of these energetic people, including Billie Carr who just recently passed away. In the Spring of 1980, when we were having the local and Democratic and Republican primaries to elect delegates to the state convention, Jimmy Carter was trying to move really far to the right to kiss up to Reagan voters. The rest of us, whether we liked Ted Kennedy or not, were joining the Kennedy bandwagon because we were trying to drag Carter closer to the center. Well I went to the precinct convention and got elected to the senatorial district convention. I was trying to get all of the gay people at the senatorial convention to come around me so that we could form a caucus. So I sat there with a sign that said "Gay Democrats." Again, this was back before I realized that transgendered people weren't always welcome in the gay community. I was trying to make an inclusion. Well I sat there all by myself. I saw a lot of people who I knew that were not going to come out of the closet at that convention.
When it came time to elect at-large delegates to the state convention, the election was open to whole group. I put my name in the hat, and I think there were thirty that were going to be elected out of about sixty people. Well I know in my bones that Billie Carr made sure that I made the cut. Here was this out transgendered person who was advocating for gay rights in the senatorial district of the Democratic convention, and she made sure that I made the cut. So I went to the state convention, and after that the next for or five state conventions. I got very involved, and it was about that time that I started getting active nationally.
In 1991, I formed what became ICTLEP, which was the International Conference on Transgender and Employment Policy. I did that because even though I was very active I was getting newsletters from the then fledgling National Gay and Lesbian Law Association, Lambda Legal, and GLAAD. None of them were mentioning transgendered people. A young man had been fired from Randall's because they though he had AIDS, which he didn't. That sparked the Randall's boycott by the political caucus. Transgendered people were also being discriminated against at Randall's and I made a big issue of it. I was told in no uncertain terms by the leadership of the Gay Political Caucus that transgenders were welcome to help but that the gay community was not going to carry any transgender water.
That's when I really got angry and got even more active. Well I formed ICTLEP so that we could start getting in transgender legal things. That's when I became active nationally and turned over a lot of local and state stuff to other people.
OutBC: What advice would you have for transgendered people who have not come out of the closet yet?
Phyllis Frye: My advice for anyone who is transgendered and dealing with that is to just come out. Coming out is not easy. It's a terrifying experience. Not only are you afraid of being ostracized by your family and friends, but also by our own community. A lot of bisexual people are afraid to come out because at some point in their bisexual experience they may be in a straight relationship and they would feel ostracized. That does occur, and it should not occur. As horrible an experience as I went through or anyone else that I know went through, it's better than staying in the closet all those years. This is 2002! Many of our local organizations are transgendered inclusive now. We lobby the State Legislature and United States Congress every year without incident. We screen through the Houston Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus's candidates and make sure that transgender questions have been asked and answered. There are more and more employers who are transgender-friendly. More and more churches are transgender-friendly now. There are resources out there. The last Pride Parade had about 160 entries, and over half of them had transgender either in their name or their mission statement.
Go to my web site [www.transgenderlegal.com], read my story and take some courage from it. You can always tell someone that you ran across a web site while you were browsing the Internet, and show them my web site. See what their response is and the test the waters a little.
OutBC: How does the Houston GLBT community rate in terms of being inclusive toward transgendered people?
Phyllis Frye: We've come a hell of a long way. We're one of the best there is!