The Transgender Menace Next Door

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

Even so, it was the Christian Law Society that bothered Phyllis most. Why wouldn't they let her join? Weren't Christians supposed to be loving? Didn't Jesus champion outcasts? For all three years she was in law school, the CLS met in secret so she couldn't join their meetings. Once, at her invitation, they laid hands on her and prayed, but God chose not to change her transgender ways. The CLS blamed Phyllis's stubbornness.

Near the end of law school, she wrote a letter to the dean of students, describing the CLS's bigotry. Eventually an investigation found discrimination, and the university suspended the group.

Phyllis's letter to the dean circulated among the law students. Everyone had known that she was harassed -- one student goaded her by wearing a kilt to class -- but until the letter, most people hadn't realized the intensity of her misery. To her surprise, people who'd never before responded to her charm began to greet her by name. The change felt like a collective apology.

Taking it to the streets: Phyllis at the 1983 Houston Pride Parade.
Taking it to the streets: Phyllis at the 1983 Houston Pride Parade.
Ms. Frye goes to Washington: In '95, Phyllis rallied transgender lobbyists.
Ms. Frye goes to Washington: In '95, Phyllis rallied transgender lobbyists.

Phyllis's law school grades weren't stellar, but her extracurricular activities ranged from civic-minded to history-making. While a student, she prepared engineering reports for the League of Women Voters. She was active in the Democratic Party, even elected as a representative to the state party convention. And almost single- handedly, she engineered the repeal of the city's cross-dressing ordinance.

She met councilmember Ernest McGowan at a UH candidates' forum, and when he invited her to volunteer in his office, she jumped at the chance. McGowan got her engineering and law expertise, and in return, she got a chance to lobby City Council from the inside.

After a few months, councilmember John Goodner bad-mouthed her during one of the council's "pop-off" sessions. Phyllis went to Goodner's office in tears, and Goodner was embarrassed. Later, prodded by her supporters, Goodner moved to repeal the cross-dressing ordinance.

But never mind that victory. Nobody -- not even gay law firms -- would hire Phyllis, and she lacked the self-confidence to launch her own practice. Passing the bar exam meant only that the neighborhood kids stopped attacking her house.

For the next five years, she supported herself by selling Amway cleaners to gay bars, and consulting as an engineer for a gay architect. During the recession of '86, when both businesses were languishing, her phone rang. "Are you a gay lawyer?" the caller asked. "Yeah," Phyllis said. She needed the money.

The man was in the air force, stationed at Bergstrom. While on leave in Houston, he'd been arrested for DWI outside a gay bar. He wanted to plead guilty, and to be sure that the news didn't reach his base. Phyllis thought, "How can I screw up a guilty plea?" She told the man to meet her at the courthouse and bring $300 in cash.

Phyllis wouldn't have known a good sentencing deal from a bad one, so she paid her old friend Ray Hill $50 to "consult" with her at the courthouse. Ray, whose business card identified him as a Fruit's Rights Freedom Fighter, was also a former felon, and he knew his way around the prison system. He waited in the hall until Phyllis came out. "Yeah," he told her, "that's a good deal."

Giddy with success, she bought her first lawyering ad in This Week in Texas, a gay and lesbian magazine. She was scared -- on the first day of her first jury trial, she vomited three times in the ladies' room -- but she was also a junkyard dog of a lawyer and took cases nobody else would touch. One was a transgender who'd lived as a woman for 20 years, but because she'd racked up a felony drug charge in her teens, couldn't find a lawyer who'd help get her name changed. Phyllis explained to the judge that her client, in her mid-thirties, wasn't trying to hide her felonious past; in fact, the crime she committed wasn't even a felony anymore. Her client simply wanted to be able to live and work as a woman. The judge signed the order, and the client was overwhelmed. As the door to the courtroom closed behind her, she fell to the ground. She'd passed out cold.

As a regular at the Harris County Courthouse, Phyllis smiled, remembered names, dispensed hugs and basked in the kind of general friendliness that she'd only dreamed about in law school. Senfronia Thompson told Phyllis that there was a reason black lawyers liked her: Familiar with stereotyping themselves, they knew how hard it was for her to get past people's first impressions. Gay and lesbian lawyers said that she gave them courage to come out of the closet. Court employees waved to her across crowded rooms. People complimented her hats.

Judge Jim Barr, a Republican not known for progressive views, once explained to a reporter why he sent work to someone who proclaimed herself a transsexual. "If you think it's not normal, that's true," he said. "But is it deviant? Who gives a shit? I want a lawyer who can handle a case and kick butt. Phyllis can do that, so I give her the harder cases."

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