The Transgender Menace Next Door

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

It was rush hour, and the traffic was heavy. Sometimes drivers waved or honked. "We're getting a lot of support!" Phyllis exulted. "That, or somebody's horny."

She led a sortie to the restaurant's back parking lot, where she believed valets were trying to whisk guests inside, safe from contact with the transgenders. A few minutes later Elizabeth Birch, the elegant director of the Human Rights Campaign, descended the restaurant's front steps. "Where's Phyllis?" she asked.

When Phyllis returned, she told Birch to talk with Sarah, whose group had organized the protest. But Sarah was out back, and Birch was in a hurry, so she talked mainly to Phyllis. The Human Rights Campaign is working for the good of everyone, she said. ENDA isn't the be-all and end-all, she said; there were other approaches, other programs. She said she respected the transgender point of view and wanted an open dialogue.

Dog tired: Phyllis says she's retiring, but she can't pass up a fight.
Dog tired: Phyllis says she's retiring, but she can't pass up a fight.

None of the transgenders were impressed. "The gay community thinks of us as a bargaining chip," said one of the young protesters. "They say to politicians, 'We'll drop the queens if you'll give us this or that.' "

Phyllis felt the same way, but she was more polite -- anxious, perhaps, not to alienate a potential ally. "Hey, Elizabeth," she said, as Birch turned to leave, "are you going to come all the way down here and not hug me?"

Birch embraced Phyllis like she meant it, then hurried back to the fund-raiser. Phyllis watched Birch climb the mansion's steps. "I don't hate her," Phyllis said. "I hate her organization."

Stress gets to Phyllis. It gives her sideroblastic anemia, which leaves her weak and prone to crying jags. She takes B vitamins and morning walks and tries to relax, but she often says it's time she retired as an activist. This winter she said she might stop writing her newsletter, but once or twice a week her "Phyllabuster" still lands in e-mailboxes. It often brings bad news or seems like a last-ditch call to action for a near-hopeless cause. But just as often, Phyllis passes on some sign that the world is improving.

In the most recent edition, she recounted her mid-June victory at the State Bar of Texas convention in Austin. Transgenders, she exulted, had scored a "BIG WIN." She had masterminded a lobbying blitz for a measure that would ban discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered state bar employees, but even she was shocked when the bar's board approved the measure. "Remember," she phyllabustered her thousand-plus readers, "IF WE CAN OBTAIN LGB&T RIGHTS IN TEXAS, then I don't want to hear or read your excuses for not doing the same."

Just as impressive are Phyllis's small-scale victories, the personal ones close to home. After 25 years, the Westbury neighbors who shunned her have either died or moved away, and their replacements see Phyllis as a human being -- a five-foot ten-inch transgender lawyer, yes, but also a dog-walking neighbor who picks up trash and belongs to the civic association.

Eight years ago Renee George moved into the house across the street from Phyllis. Her new next-door neighbors warned her about "Phil/Phyllis," but after meeting Phyllis and Trish, Renee saw nothing to worry about. She was more scared of the neighbors who warned her, and she was relieved when they moved away.

But Phyllis and Trish remain, and Renee's relationship with them is full of pleasant, unremarkable exchanges. The two families sometimes eat together. They take care of each other's dogs, and Renee tells her 11-year-old daughter to call Phyllis in case of emergencies.

"She's the best neighbor we've ever had," says Renee. "She's thoughtful and considerate. And she keeps her yard up."

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