The Transgender Menace Next Door

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

Sometimes, when the courthouse was treating her like the most popular kid in high school, a lawyer would joke, "Phyllis, when are you going to run for judge?"

She always laughed and drawled the same reply: "I'm too busy running for human being."

Phyllis fights efforts to sacrifice transgenders in the battle for gay rights.
Phyllis fights efforts to sacrifice transgenders in the battle for gay rights.
Tending her own garden: Phyllis cultivates relationships by staying rooted in her beliefs.
Tending her own garden: Phyllis cultivates relationships by staying rooted in her beliefs.

Naturally, Phyllis has become an expert in transgender law. She's launched a Web site (, recently published two papers in prestigious law journals, and has a third on the way. In her most recent article, "Same-Sex Marriages Have Existed Legally in the United States for a Long Time Now," she and co-counsel Alyson Meiselman explained the legal reasoning behind their recent news-making coup: a lesbian marriage legally blessed by the state of Texas. (See "XX Marks the Spot," September 14, 2000.)

They counted the marriage as a victory, but it grew out of defeat: the appeal of Littleton v. Prange. Lee Cavazos was born with a penis, but even as a toddler, felt like a girl. Lee changed his name to Christie Lee, and at the age of 25, had three "genital- reassignment procedures." By all outward appearances, she was a woman.

In Kentucky, she met Mark Littleton, who loved her even after she broke the startling news. They got married and moved to San Antonio, her hometown, where for seven years they lived like any other straight married couple. They enjoyed what lawyers call "private, intimate, heterosexual vaginal-penile sexual intercourse."

But then Mark died, and Christie Lee tried to sue his doctor for malpractice. San Antonio's Fourth Court of Appeals ruled that she had no legal standing because she wasn't Mark Littleton's widow. Because her chromosomes were male, the judge wrote, her marriage was never valid.

After the case made the San Antonio newspapers, the city's transgender activists found Christie Lee and referred her to Phyllis. Phyllis joined forces with Alyson, a transgender lawyer from Maryland, and prepared to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

The court declined to hear the case, but while waiting for that decision, Phyllis saw a way to stick it to the Fourth Court. If gender was in the chromosomes, as the court had ruled, then a man-turned-woman could marry a woman, and a woman-turned-man could marry a man. In other words: perfectly legal lesbian and gay marriages! In September two of Phyllis's clients, Jessica and Robin Wicks, stood on the steps of the Bexar County courthouse, brandishing their marriage license for the TV cameras. The "Texas lesbian marriage" made headlines across the country.

Phyllis urged gay rights groups to use the Wicks' marriage (and two other trans-marriages that followed) as a legal wedge. She offered an equal-protection argument: If that same-sex couple could get married, why not any other?

She's disappointed, but not surprised, that no one has followed her lead. As gays and lesbians have gained political power, they've begun to distance themselves from transgenders. Transgenders seem, well, embarrassing. TV cameras and the religious right are magnetically drawn to men in sparkly dresses, and Middle America already believes that all gays are drag queens. Besides, transgenders are often funny-looking. Some are heterosexual. And aren't they Johnny-come-latelies, glomming on to the gay rights movement only now that it's succeeding?

That last charge pisses Phyllis off. "Stonewall!" she says, invoking the Boston Tea Party of the queer rights revolution. "It was drag queens who threw rocks at Stonewall! We've been there since the beginning! We're only trying to get back in!"

In September Phyllis and a crew of transgenders stood outside La Colombe d'Or, a mansion-turned-restaurant on Montrose. Facing the rush-hour traffic, they held a banner that said, "Transgenders Are Proud And We Vote!" Phyllis usually stored the banner at her house, to be used in Pride Week parades, lobbying efforts and, when necessary, protests like this one. She was wearing her Transgender Menace T-shirt.

Mercedes and Jaguars pulled into the restaurant's circle drive. Inside the restaurant was a fund-raising party for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian lobbying group championing a piece of federal legislation called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Transgender groups charge that the Human Rights Campaign has maneuvered to keep the act's protections narrow: gays and lesbians, but not transgenders; sexual orientation, but not gender identity.

On the sidewalk, Phyllis's friend Sarah DePalma handed bright yellow flyers to anybody who'd take one. Sarah is the president of the Texas Gender Advocacy Information Network, a statewide lobbying group for the transgendered. "We do not consider you to be an enemy," the flyer told the fund-raiser's patrons. "We view this as a family dispute."

But family disputes are often the bitterest kind. If anyone needs an employment nondiscrimination act, transgenders do. Lesbians and gays have it easy by comparison. Phyllis could tell too many stories of transgender job losses that led straight to homelessness, prostitution or suicide. "We are talking life and death," said Sarah's yellow flyer. "It is just that simple…Please follow your conscience…Make your feelings known by taking your money home."

The dozen or so protesters were mostly white and mostly male-to-female transgenders. They ranged from comfortable-in-their-own-skin old-timers like Phyllis to relative babies, still in the ugly-duckling stage of transition, still trying to hide a five o'clock shadow under a thick foundation. One of the ugly ducklings said that in fact, she'd just been fired herself. Her employer wouldn't tolerate the change.

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