By Caitlyn Jones
Phyllis Frye enjoys the spotlight. As a first grader, Frye joined her elementary school’s rhythm band. She and her classmates tinged triangles, jingled tambourines, and banged drum sticks. But Frye was restless in the back of the crowd. “I had a pretty high self-image of myself and it just really angered me that I was stuck playing the band sticks,” she recalled. “I didn’t like that.”
Years later, she moved to the metaphorical front of the class when her fellow Boy Scouts elected her senior patrol leader, an honor bestowed upon the person responsible for the troop’s operation. Then, she signed up for her high school’s senior play, nabbing a coveted co-star role after memorizing her entire part for the audition.
These early experiences kicked off a lifelong career of taking center stage, most notably as a pioneer in the fight for transgender rights. Frye spearheaded the repeal of Houston’s anti-crossdressing ordinance, represented as a lawyer hundreds of clients who faced discrimination because of their gender identity, and became the nation’s first openly transgender judge. Her endeavors made her somewhat of a celebrity, leading to guest appearances on the Phil Donahue Show and front-page write-ups in The New York Times. Even now, she sits in her home office for an interview framed by movie posters from films like Transamerica and Tootsie alongside photos of her national organizing days, displaying the trajectory of a life at the forefront of a movement.
But the spotlight has been lonely in recent months. Frye’s wife of nearly fifty years, a beloved music teacher named Trish, passed away in September 2020 from brain cancer. Trish preferred to stay in the wings of Frye’s celebrity, demurring when reporters asked questions and avoiding group photos. Instead, she offered her wife unconditional support and encouragement in the face of bigoted ridicule. Reflecting on her legacy, Frye asserts no accounting is complete without Trish. “Everybody thinks that my story is my story,” Frye said. “My story is with Trish … It’s our story.”
Watch the collaboration between Houston Public Media and the Center for Public History as they discuss the 100 years of Houston History, an episodic series featuring Phyllis Frye in Episode 1: Episode 1: Phyllis Randolph Frye, LGBTQ Pioneer, highlighting the impact of America’s first transgender judge.