The Transgender Menace Next Door

She's here. She's queer. The neighbors are used to it.

Her self-esteem was shot. She was depressed and lonely. Only three things kept her afloat: Trish; her volunteer work with the supportive League of Women Voters; and her church, the Metropolitan Community Church of the Resurrection. In the choir, she sang soprano and alto. (She jokes that she's the only person she knows who's performed the Hallelujah Chorus as a bass, tenor, alto and soprano.)

She gave up on finding engineering work, and in the fall of '77, entered the University of Houston's business school. Mainly, she saw school as a source of income. Under the GI Bill, as long as she stayed in school, the U.S. government would send her a stipend.

She and Trish needed the money. Their savings were gone. They had shoes, but not winter shoes, and their coats were raggedy. Every year at Christmas, their church gathered canned goods for a poor family, and that year, the family was Trish and Phyllis. Phyllis cried with gratitude.

…and as an Aggie: "I was the world's best actress," says Phyllis.
…and as an Aggie: "I was the world's best actress," says Phyllis.
…and as an Aggie: "I was the world's best actress," says Phyllis.
…and as an Aggie: "I was the world's best actress," says Phyllis.

Twenty-three years later, Phyllis looked anything but beaten down. She strode into the UH classroom wearing the casual version of her battle gear: granny glasses, shorts and a "Transgender Menace" T-shirt. And when she began her talk, she exuded a trial lawyer's certitude.

"A lot of people don't understand gender," she told the sandwich-eating law students. "Is it in the genitals? the chromosomes? or in the brain? And what does it have to do with sexual attraction? A lot of people, not in this room, assume that if you're born a man, you're attracted to women, and if you're born a woman, you're attracted to men. We know that's not automatically true."

The line drew a small, knowing laugh. Phyllis was speaking to the Mandamus Society, a group of UH's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender law students. Mandamus is an indirect descendant of a group that Phyllis founded in the late '70s, after she decided to add a law degree to her MBA. She didn't especially want to be a lawyer. But if she went to law school, she'd learn how to protect herself and continue to collect her GI Bill stipend.

"Gender identity comes out of the brain," Phyllis told the students. "That's the current medical thinking. If you don't get anything else out of this lecture, remember this: Your biggest sex organ is right here." She pointed to her head.

In '78 Phyllis began taking low-dosage female hormones, and for the next six years, they worked changes on her body. Her face thinned and softened, and her muscular shoulders shrank. She developed breasts, and to her delight, a soft, round butt. Even from the back, even when she wore jeans, she no longer looked like a longhaired man. She looked like a great big woman.

Sometimes transgenders talk about a "completed" transition, meaning one that includes genital-correction surgery. Phyllis has nothing against such operations, but she argues that they're not for everyone, including herself. For starters, they're expensive -- $37,000 to go from male to female, $77,000 to go from female to male -- and it's practically unheard of for an insurance policy to cover the costs. Also, as with any surgery, there's a medical risk. And especially in the case of the female-to-male genital change, the results can be less than stunning.

But for Phyllis, it wasn't just a matter of cost. She didn't want a surgically constructed vagina; she was woman enough already. She won't discuss the particulars of her sex life with Trish -- it's nobody's business -- but she will say that they're happy. Trish, who values her privacy, refused to talk publicly about anything involving her marriage to Phyllis. Never mind their sex life.

When Phyllis entered law school, she hadn't yet begun taking hormones and still looked too male to "pass." The law students, younger and less tolerant than the ones at the business school, refused to accept her as one of their own. Whenever she tried to join a chattering group, it dispersed within 90 seconds. In March she skipped classes and went on a two-week crying jag.

But she also fought back with charm and persistence. She asked professors to give her seating charts so she could memorize her classmates' names. At every chance, she said hello and smiled. Most people were courteous only until they could escape, but a few came around.

Some classmates complained because Phyllis used the women's restroom, but everyone agreed that she shouldn't use the men's. During one such discussion, a friend rose to her defense: "Maybe you'd be happier if Phyllis just used a trash can and squatted in the hallway." Her detractors backed down. And eventually they stopped worrying what Phyllis was doing behind a locked stall door.

In her second year, Phyllis founded a law school group called Law Students and Friends of Gays and Lesbians*. The asterisk was meant to be inclusive, since the little group certainly was. (Most of its members were straight, since closeted gays were too nervous to join.) The Friends drove the campus's conservatives crazy. After the Friends dared to ask for $250 in student organization funds, the Young Americans for Freedom flew in Austin lawyers to argue against the request. That night, before Phyllis got home, a group of students drove to her house, banged on the windows and doors, and screamed rape threats. It took months for Trish to feel safe again.

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