Meet the Grandmother of the Trans Legal Rights Movement
Phyllis Frye’s status as the “grandmother of the transgender legal rights movement” was always partly the handiwork of her stalwart support system, second wife, Patricia “Trish” Dooley Frye, whom she was wed to for 47 years. Frye is now navigating life without Trish, who died in 2020.
“We had such a good love that I want love again,” Frye told Outsmart last year. “Not everybody [gets that kind of love].”
Frye is working to move on, taking heart that her legacy as a queer rights leader is being cemented as of late. A new book from historians Michael G. Long and Shea Tuttle, Phyllis Frye and the Fight for Transgender Rights, documents her momentous life and its instrumental role in trans liberation. Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Frye is best known as a judge — in 2010 she became the first openly transgender judge appointed in the U.S. — but some of her most impactful work took place when she didn’t wield a gavel.
After becoming a lieutenant in the Army and marrying Trish, Frye came out as trans in the mid-70s, enduring non-stop harassment from her Houston-area neighbors. Instead of hiding from the world, the hate turned Frye into an activist, leading her to law school and an integral role in the 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. “Her trans advocacy would give birth to a movement and she used the march organizing as a means of [achieving] that,” march co-organizer Ray Hill says. “The state of our collective movement in 1979 was one of uneven development of its component parts. The trans movement did not exist, except for Phyllis’s advocacy.”
Frye would be involved in subsequent marches on Washington for queer rights, lobbying for trans inclusion and becoming the first transgender person to speak at a national march for lesbian and gay rights. Frye understood the importance of language and advocated for years — mostly through her positions in the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association and its influential Lavender Law Conference — to add the T to the LGB acronym.
Frye’s contributions to the trans movement continued through the 1990s. Among her many accomplishments are the six annual International Conferences on Transgender Law and Employment Policy which she organized, hosted, and provided grassroots training for. Eventually, Frye established a practice in criminal defense. “By 2010, I had become senior partner of my firm with lawyers who were either LGBT or supportive,” she recalls.
That year, Frye became the first out transgender judge in the entire country, when Mayor Annise Parker picked Frye to be an associate municipal judge for the city of Houston. As an associate she worked part-time, which allowed her to continue to practice law “and head this firm that I had worked so hard to establish.”
In recent years, Frye would take on transgender clients from around the state who need legal help with name changes and other paperwork. “I do kids as young as 6 and adults in their 70s and all in between,” Frye says.
Even after Trish’s death and an onslaught of anti-trans laws and political rhetoric, Frye remains optimistic and emboldened, telling everyone in the legal profession, including judges like herself, to come out.
“You’re dealing with so much angst if you’re worried about what other people are going to think,” Frye recently told out Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. “They’re going to think what they’re going [to] think anyway.”