‘Things have changed, and it’s pretty wonderful’

Phyllis Frye appointed Texas’ 1st transgender judge by Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Brian Rogers  |  Houston Chronicle via The Associated Press

Phyllis Frye
Phyllis Frye

HOUSTON — Thirty years ago, Phyllis Frye, a longtime activist for LGBT causes, could have been arrested for wearing women’s clothing in the Houston City Council chamber.Frye, a transgender Houston attorney born as Phillip Frye, fought back tears last week as the mayor appointed her to a municipal bench in the same room where she helped repeal Houston’s “cross-dressing ordinance” in 1980.

“I almost started crying, because I remembered 31 years ago, in that very same chamber, I was subject to arrest,” Frye said.

The 63-year-old will hear traffic ticket cases and other low-level misdemeanor trials. Municipal judges are not elected, she noted.

Frye said she would be the first transgender judge in Texas. She knows of at least two transgender judges in other parts of the country.
Frye applied for the position several months ago and was vetted before being appointed by Mayor Annise Parker on Wednesday, Nov. 17, with seven other new associate judges.

“I think she’s a great addition to our judiciary,” the mayor said. “I’m very proud I was able to nominate her, and she agreed to serve.”
Frye joins 43 other associate municipal judges and 22 full-time municipal judges.

“I don’t want to underplay this, because I understand it is very significant,” Frye said. “But I don’t want to overplay it either. I don’t want people to think I am anything other than an associate municipal court judge.”

Three decades ago Frye volunteered at City Hall where she worked to repeal an ordinance that allowed police to arrest men in women’s clothes and lesbians wearing fly-front jeans.

“Things have changed, and it’s pretty wonderful,” Frye said.

A graduate of Texas A&M, Frye was an Eagle Scout and an Aggie cadet. She also was a husband and a father.

Frye has practiced criminal defense law in Houston since 1986.

She now heads a six-lawyer firm and has parlayed her expertise in LGBT legal issues into a storied legal career — the latest chapter of which is her representation of Nikki Araguz, the transgender Wharton widow embroiled in a legal battle to receive part of her firefighter husband’s death benefits.

Parker’s critics seized on Frye’s appointment to say the mayor, who is a lesbian, is promoting a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender agenda.

“Phyllis Frye is a very well-known radical transgender activist,” said Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council, which represents about 300 churches.

“We don’t think it is consistent with the values of the vast majority of the people,” Welch said. “We think it is an anti-family lifestyle and agenda.”

Her appointment, however, was applauded by Houston’s GLBT Political Caucus.

“Phyllis Frye is a true icon in our civil rights movement,” said Kris Banks, Caucus president. “She is an internationally recognized pioneer, and the mayor is to be congratulated for her choice.”

Banks noted that Charles Spain, an openly gay attorney and chair of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identification Issues of the State Bar, also was appointed as an associate municipal court judge. Josh Brockman, an openly gay attorney, was appointed as a hearings officer to resolve contested parking tickets.

New judges go through hours of state-mandated training. Frye said she expects to begin substituting for sitting judges in the spring.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 26, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Houston LGBTs to celebrate anniversary of repeal of ordinance banning cross-dressing

Phyllis Frye

Back when I was in junior high school — the early to mid 1970s — our school had a dress code that prohibited girls from wearing pants with rear pockets. See, pants that had pockets on the back were “boy” pants, and girls weren’t allowed to wear “boy” pants.

Having always been a jeans kind of gal myself, I broke that rule often. And I got in trouble for it more than once.

But obviously, my rural, smalltown junior high school wasn’t the only place that had such rules. Most cities had ordinances that prohibited cross-dressing. My old friend, the late Joe Elliott, told me that in the ’60s when she was a dyke about town, the butch lesbians always had to be careful not to dress too masculine in public, or they would be arrested. And I have heard drag queens talk about how they had to make sure to wear men’s underwear under their dresses to avoid arrest.

These ordinances were usually used by police to justify harassment of “the queers,” especially the transgenders and the butch lesbians. Such was the case in Houston, where next weekend the Transgender Foundation of America will hold an event to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the repeal of that city’s “no cross-dressing” ordinance.

Lou Weaver, who is on the TFA board, sent out an e-mail Wednesday announcing the event.

“This is not a joke!” Weaver wrote. “At that time women were expected to have their zippers on the side or in the back, otherwise, they were cross-dressing. This led to constant harrassment and several arrests for trans identified women, lesbians and anyone else the vice squad did not approve of.”

Well-known Houston attorney transgender activist Phyllis Frye led the three-and-a-half-year-long battle to get the ordinance repealed, and she will be on hand at the event to “share stories about fighting for transgender rights,” Weaver said. One of those stories is Frye’s account, following, about how they slipped the repeal vote past the homophobes/transphobes:

“On August the 12th, 1980, after several delay-tags that were put on to the repeal ordinance, it was again before Council. At the time, our Mayor was Jim McConn. He was out of town, as was Jim Westmoreland. McConn knew that it was coming up on the agenda, and he had told the Mayor pro tem for that day, Johnny Goyen, that it was alright with him. City Secretary, Anna Russell, waited until Council members Homer Ford and Larry McKaskell were on the phone. When they got on the phone, she immediately handed the repeal to Johnny. You see, the deal is that under council rules if you’re present and you don’t vote no, then it’s an automatic yes vote. Homer and Larry were on the phone. They didn’t even know what was going on. There was only one no vote, and that was Council member Christen Hartung, she was the sole and only no vote. I still hope that somebody will beat her. Homer and Larry went to Johnny about five minutes later, and Johnny says, ‘oh, I didn’t know that was going through.’ The ordinance was repealed and it has remained so to this day.”

The anniversary event will be held from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 14, at 604 Pacific in Houston. Everyone is welcome. Food will be provided but bring your own beer and wine.

Today, we celebrate a court victory over Prop 8 in California and move one step closer to eventual full marriage equality in this country. But as you celebrate remember that just 30 years ago, butch lesbians in Houston couldn’t wear zip-up Levis without risking arrest.

So if you are in Houston next weekend, go on over to 604 Pacific on Saturday afternoon and celebrate  a significant historical victory. And if you’re not in Houston, well, take a minute that day to stop and say a silent thank-you to those men and women, like Phyllis, who were willing to stand up and fight the good fight when it was much more dangerous to do so, and win the battles that make it possible for us to live as openly and freely as we do today.

—  admin