By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
Phyllis Randolph Frye pronounces the phrase "voy dyer," just like every other trial lawyer in Texas. Voir dire means jury selection, and lawyers say it's 90 percent of winning a case. For Phyllis, it was even more important.
She advertised in Houston's gay papers, and her clients didn't expect much from a Texas jury. They were people like the wheelchair-bound lesbian, harassed and left stranded by homophobic MetroLift drivers. Or the gay cop so hated by other officers that they framed him for theft. Or the transsexual whose things were stolen by a man who called her a faggot even outside the dispute-resolution building.
Queens, homos, dykes, lesbos -- Phyllis knew what The Wrong Kind of Juror thought of her clients. That hatred unnerved her, so for the courthouse, she girded herself in a frumpy Dress for Success suit and a Bella Abzug fedora. When it was her turn to address the jury pool, she stood cadet-straight, with her broad shoulders thrown back, so she seemed even taller than five feet ten inches. A lawyer should never let a jury know she's scared.
She smiled the way any Texas good ol' girl smiles when meeting strangers. Her eyes crinkled, and her dimples looked bottomless. When she spoke, it was in a deep alto softened by a sweet-tea drawl. "I am a transgender lesbian," she always said, as matter-of-fact calm as if she'd just declared herself a member of the League of Women Voters. "Do any of y'all have a problem with that?"
Of course they did -- The Wrong Kind of Jurors, the narrow-minded Bible thumpers, the sexually insecure, and those just plain too inflexible to sit in the same room with a former man who now wore a skirt. The hands rose one by one, and the judge always instructed those people to leave the courtroom.
Which left only The Right Kind of Jurors. After all, if you can calmly contemplate the existence of a five-foot ten-inch hat-wearing transgender lesbian lawyer, you won't be fazed by a little thing like her client's sexual orientation.
Phyllis Randolph Frye dealt with voir dire the same way she learned to deal with life. She smiled, she introduced herself, and she waited for the jackasses to leave.
With Phyllis, the personal and the professional get all mixed together, so you're not surprised that her law office is a front room in her house. The walls are covered with citations and photos of Phyllis's greatest hits as a lawyer and transgender activist. There's the mayoral proclamation, signed by Kathy Whitmire, declaring "Phyllis Randolph Frye Day" 20 years after Phyllis engineered the repeal of the city law against cross-dressing. There's Phyllis on the Donahue show; the photo is signed, "With gratitude, Phil." There's Phyllis at the Second National Transgender Lobby Day, the Capitol Dome rising behind her as she addresses the crowd.
Phyllis lifts her guitar out of her desk chair and turns on her computer. The hard drive is stuffed with legal briefs and "Phyllabusters," the transgender-issues e-mail she blasts to more than a thousand people who've expressed interest. She clicks to open the folder that holds her family photos, and smiles, pitying, as her old macho self appears on the screen. There's one of little Phillip wearing a cowboy hat. There's Phillip as an Eagle Scout with a chest full of merit badges. Phillip as the commander of his high school ROTC unit. Buzz-cut Phillip as a Texas A&M freshman. Recently married Phillip, wearing his Aggie corps boots, his pants stretched tight over his crotch. Phillip, the moustached father, posing with his young son.
Phyllis shakes her head. "I was the world's best actress," she says.
Around the age of six, Phillip realized that his body didn't match his brain. His brain said he was a girl, but he knew better than to act like one. Not in San Antonio. Not in the '50s. And certainly not in his family. His dad was a man's man, a Methodist, a military veteran and an engineer. On Phyllis's computer screen, you see Phillip trying hard to impersonate his dad.
But in private, the costume sometimes came off. Phillip cross-dressed, and he hated himself for it. "Gender dysphoria" is the official psychiatric diagnosis for people whose mental gender doesn't match their sex organs. The term makes Phyllis want to puke, she says, because it brands transgenders as having a problem with their brains, when really the problem lies with their genitals, their hormones and society. But she'd agree with the official medical opinion offered by the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association: "Being transgender is not a lifestyle choice; it is a condition in which one's identification and desire to live as a member of the other sex is deep-seated, unavoidable, and overwhelming."
In 1972, while Phillip was an army engineer stationed in Germany, his wife left him because of his cross-dressing and took their toddler son with her. Phillip went to his superiors and asked that he be transferred stateside so he could save his marriage and attempt, one more time, to stop cross-dressing. His superiors told him that cross-dressing disqualified him from serving. He had the presence of mind to demand an honorable discharge. Otherwise, he said, he'd tell his story to the media.