Q&A: Phyllis Randolph Frye, Houston’s “Grandmother of Transgender Law”
America’s first out transgender judge discusses her 44-year marriage and the legal challenges still facing trans people today.
Known as the “Grandmother of Transgender Law,” Phyllis Randolph Frye has been helping trans people navigate the intricacies of an LGBTQ-unfriendly legal system since the mid-’70s. She’s weathered both personal and professional storms over that time. Soon after her first marriage ended, she met her current wife, Trish (Frye asked that we not share her last name). In 2010, Frye made history when Mayor Annise Parker (one of the nation’s first LGBTQ big-city mayors) appointed her Associate Judge for Houston Municipal Courts.
LWT: How did you and Trish meet?
PRF: I was being processed out of the Army in 1972 and received a job offer from Texas A&M. While still in Germany I met a woman who suggested I look up her old college friend, Trish, who lived near A&M.
We met. We dated. We dated others. We became very good friends. Then we fell in love. It was our becoming and remaining best friends that kept us together during some very rough times, especially after I transitioned.
LWT: Did Trish know you were trans before you married?
PRF: Yes. My first wife didn’t know before. That was understandable since I wasn’t all that sure about who I was then. My first wedding was in 1968, and trans was not well known. But I wanted to be sure that Trish knew before, and she decided that I was “worth the risk.”
LWT: When and where did you and Trish marry?
PRF: June 1973 in Bryan, Texas. Her parents owned a dairy farm in the country and the ceremony was there. Catered barbecue and fixin’s, a keg of beer, and a chocolate wedding cake. We had a great time!
LWT: How soon after did you transition?
PRF: Three years. Finally in summer 1976, Trish had said that I was going nuts and that I should be myself, and she would try to hang on. She did. We celebrate our 44th anniversary in June.
LWT: How common are weddings in the trans community?
PRF: In my business both as a lawyer and an activist, I know of many trans folks who have divorced as a result. I also know of some couples who stay together after transition. As trans is becoming better known, and as lesbian and gay is becoming less stigmatized, I know that more couples are staying together. But I can’t put a number on it.
LWT: Do trans people still face legal obstacles to marrying?
PRF: Not really. If they marry as man and woman before transition, it stays a legal marriage. If they get married after, it’s a same-sex marriage, but these are still being challenged as to “Is Obergefell retroactive, and what about pensions and insurance?” The conservative bigots are filing those lawsuits even today, such as one currently in the Texas Supreme Court. We’ll have to watch and see.
LWT: What are the biggest legal hurdles for trans people?
PRF: First, employment. In 2012, the federal EEOC ruled that trans is covered by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But to get that coverage, you must be discriminated against by a firm with 15 or more employees. Trump could appoint folks to the EEOC who would change that, and appoint federal judges who would overturn the current EEOC position.
Next, education. Trump has overturned rulings about how trans kids are to be received by schools. This case goes before the US Supreme Court in about a year. Third, homeless shelters receiving funds from federal HUD. Currently, they must accept trans homeless within their gender identity. Trump’s folks could change that. Four years of Trump could undo or reverse the many protections gotten under Obama.
LWT: On a more hopeful note, what’s your secret to maintaining a long marriage?
PRF: Marry your best friend. In any relationship, love may ebb and flow. When there are problems, both parties stay because the friendship is tight.
Featured image by Brandon Thibodeaux