Phyllis Frye: Lifetime Achievement Award


America’s first out trans judge Phyllis Frye (she was the first out trans judge to be sworn in, in America) just recently won the Lifetime Achievement Award. The award was given at the Transgender Foundation of America‘s 21st annual Transgender Unity Banquet. Check out her moving acceptance speech:

What follows is a post that I made after I processed a number of her personal documents for the Transgender Archive located in Houston, Texas:

Over the last 24 hours, I’ve spent about 12 of them scanning Phyllis Frye’s 1970s trans documents. I don’t know that I can even put into words how those documents affected me. Most of us don’t know that we all owe Phyllis a debt of gratitude.

 1973: Teaching transgender law before there was such a thing

In Houston, we trace our community back to Phyllis. On the international scene, we trace our legal protections and back to Phyllis. Whether you want to talk about trans healthcare, national trans policy or the very notion of “community” – we can’t have that discussion about that without Phyllis.

Today we get really worked up if someone uses a word like “tranny” while endlessly debating whether the term “transgender” is a taxonomy or an identity. When Phyllis was creating what we would all come to benefit from, she was doing it in a world few of us would understand today.

Phyllis started the first inclusive trans group in Houston. Before she heard others use the term, she began to independently say “transgender” – in fact, she’s perhaps the earliest to cut through all the BS and just use the term “trans” to describe all who share a non-cis history, experience and/or expression… something we still do today.

1975: “Transvestism and Transgenderism”

Phyllis was the one you wrote to if you lived in the South. Phyllis was cultivating the likes of Paul Walker even before he was evena doctor. She helped Walker get the 2nd gender clinic in the nation up and going and in turn, Walker supported Phyllis’ trans groups.

[alert type=”info”]Quick History Lesson: Walker was part of our nation’s 1st gender clinic, started one of the earliest ones in Galveston, TX, chaired the effort to put together a Standard of Care and was responsible for distributing all the Erickson Foundation educational materials.[/alert]

In the 1970s, she was OPENLY trans… doing radical things like leading queer marches.

Phyllis marching and speaking for GLBT rights

While I know that it’s a popular meme to pin the use of “transgender” on a number of people who are not Phyllis, but between the “trans” taxonomy she put into Walker’s head, using the umbrella terms “transgenderism” and “trans” in her presentations at various universities and inventing a branch of national and international law called “transgender law,” I think the time has come to acknowledge that without Phyllis, the “trans community” may would not exist in its present form.

In the 1970s, Phyllis fought in a way that few but the most active of civil rights leaders could claim to have fought. She braved arrest every day, she integrated trans folk into the National Origination of Women, she reached out to any politician who would listen – from the school board to the US President – and would do whatever it took to get an explicitly oppressive system to treat “trans people” (as she was calling us back in the 70s) with equality.

“Trans” – Explicit T umbrella term being part of a ‘GLBT community’ in its infancy. From speech at “Town Hall Meeting I”

[alert type=”info”]Quick History Lesson: The 1978 Town Hall Meeting I is where Houston’s gay agenda came from. All of our queer infrastructure, values and community goals came from these meetings.[/alert]

Houston’s anti-trans ordinances

Not only did she do “little” things like get Houston’s crossdressing ordnance overturned, she did other things like… ensure there was something that would come to be known as a “GLBT community.”

The trans-inclusive gay agenda by Phyllis

You know that “unity not uniformity” value that I’m always waxing on about that we in the Houston trans community seem to value so much? That’s all Phyllis. Language aside, she worked tirelessly to pull together a community. I’ve mentioned that Houston has something that’s called a “Unity Banquet” (now in its 20th year) and a “Unity Committee” and that these institutions are the foundations upon which a unified community was built. Well, we can thank Phyllis for that too. Decades ago, the mixed group and transsexual group was at war with the crossdressing group. Phyllis was the one who cultivated the ceasefire.

“Trans-People” – Support group for all trans people

Back in the 1970s, Phyllis was blacklisted. She wasn’t able to get work even though she was an experienced engineer. It is still heart wrenching to read the dozens upon dozens upon dozens of brush-off letters. When she tried to go back to school, she was turned down for practically any and all school funding. The State of Texas wanted to even refuse her unemployment. Schools turned her down and when she did get into school, she had to endure everything from right-wing Christian school groups coming to her home threatening to rape her wife (who stood by her through all of this) to the slashed tires, graffiti and threats from neighbors and anonymous haters.

“If the trans…”

… not to mention the rejection from “friends” and family… including her own children. Going through these papers, I truly connected with the enormity of what she was facing… and overcoming… largely on her own.

EEOC Complaint

In the middle of all of this, she was being there for others day and night while building a foundation for a trans community. You name it she braved it. Remember; this was still the 1970s Houston where the KKK bombed our community radio off the air, they proudly marched down Montrose (the gayborhood) and our Mayoral candidates would say things like “shoot the queers.”

Thank you Phyllis!

Cristan Williams is a trans historian and pioneer in addressing the practical needs of underserved communities. She started the first trans homeless shelter in Texas and co-founded the first federally funded housing-first homeless program, pioneered affordable health care for trans people in the Houston area, won the right for trans people to change their gender on Texas ID prior to surgery, started numerous trans social service programs and founded the Transgender Center as well as the Transgender Archives. She has published short stories, academic chapters and papers, and numerous articles for both print and digital magazines. She received numerous awards for her advocacy and has presented at universities throughout the nation, served on several governmental committees and CBO boards, is the Editor of the TransAdvocate, and is a founding board member of the Transgender Foundation of America and the Bee Busy Wellness Center.