In Conversation with Phyllis Randolph Frye

by Madeleine Matsui

Illustration by Yuko Okabe

published September 25, 2015

The College Hill Independent: You work at the intersection of law and social justice, and have used this position to advocate extensively for trans rights. Where do you think the United States stands on the acceptance of trans people?  


Phyllis Randolph Frye: Obviously I am very proud that the decades I spent pushing for transgender rights on a national, legal, and political level yielded such wonderful fruit. I am pleased that in the year 2015, even though people in the community still think very highly of me—and I am pleased that they do—I am no longer necessary in the advancement of transgender rights, because my work has been taken on by so many others. 

As to what is going on today, I am pleased that two years ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the Holder decision unanimously ruled that transgender was covered under the sex protection of Title VII of the 1964 act. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, we had several cases which ruled that transgender was not covered under Title VII because that prohibition against discrimination was based on sex in the statute. The courts ruled that this was change of sex. And of course when we read that, we realized how ludicrous that was because there also was a prohibition against discrimination based on religion. If someone who worked at the Baptist bookstore was Jewish and lost their job, the courts wouldn’t say that that was discrimination based on change of religion, rather than religion itself. Of course we all see how foolish that is.



The Indy: Why do you think these laws were able to be crafted in such obviously flawed ways in the early years of the trans movement? Why was such a clear exclusion of the protection of trans rights so easily glossed over and accepted until very recently?


PRF: I think one of the reasons we had such bad laws back then is because many transgender people were still in the closet. And the general population didn’t really have the experience in knowing who we were other than in sensationalized stereotyping. Since then, the EOC has ruled that protection also goes to restrooms in the workplace, so that if you are a transgender person and you are living full time in the gender identity that you are, that you will not be prohibited from the gender identity in which you are living. Title IX, just a year or two ago, made a similar ruling and went much further in saying that transgender was covered under Title IX, and that schools that are K-12 and other schools that are receiving federal funding can no longer discriminate against transgender [people].

These are huge. So much of this is the result of the work of the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, LAMDA Legal, GLAD and of course the national association of LGBT Bar. To have been the person who got the ball rolling on that is very satisfying. 



The Indy: Gay and lesbian groups, such as the ones you just mentioned, were clearly central to drawing attention to the trans movement and to advancing the trans rights movement to where it is now. You’ve been outspoken over the course of your career about how closely intertwined homophobia and transphobia are. Why do you think these historical divisions between trans and gay communities existed and in some ways continue to exist? What are the roots of these tensions?


PRF: You’ve got to realize that we’re all in the same boat as far as being queer to those people who don’t like us and who choose not to even try to understand us. The Compton Riots on the West Coast and shortly after that the Stonewall Riots on the East Coast—those were both very much led by gender queer people who could easily be identified as transgender. The reason why they were so misunderstood or picked upon is because they didn’t express gender within the social norm, whatever that is. Once all that got going, it was definitely a then gay and trans effort.

There was a move by the wealthier gay people—and I say gay rather than gay and lesbian because at the time, it was all known as the gay community. They definitely didn’t want to have anything to do with us. They felt that we inhibited their ability to be accepted. I refer to them as the “Gucci shoe wearing” gay people. We started having gay pride parades, and there was always in the local and national media a particular focus on people who expressed gender differently. Again, gay leaders and then later gay and lesbian leaders, thought that we were a drag—pardon the pun—on their efforts. The only time they wanted our kind around was when there was money that needed to be raised, and our people would put on some sort of benefit that almost always involved cross-dressing. I really think that that has a lot to do with it. There were people within the gay and lesbian community who didn’t want anything to do with us, didn’t feel that they had anything to do with us, who did not express gender differently. And so they didn’t feel that we had any commonality and made very deliberate efforts to separate themselves from us.

In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, it became clear to me that lesbian and gay folk were fighting for their causes and not being inclusive of our causes, I called them on it and they said: “It’s nice to have you around, but trans is not our issue.” And that was when I started to fight. That is when I started to organize the international conference on transgender law and employment policy and that was when I started to lobby in Washington, DC. We had huge fights with then-Congressman Barney Frank, because he did not want to include us either. It went on for a long time. I think, in the end, transgender people coming out and working with their local and state organizations had a lot to do with the ultimate success of the movement.


The Indy: The recent momentum of movement has been quite astonishing. Your view is that it can be attributed to increasing numbers of trans people coming out. There was recently an Al-Jazeera article “Transition at 12” that talks about trans children who are being treated and helped through their transition through a clinic in Dallas. How do you view this sort of medicalization of trans children and adolescents, and this process of helping those who are just coming out as trans through the administration of drugs such as hormone blockers? 


PRF: I think it’s wonderful. And it’s not just in Dallas. There are children transitioning in many major metropolitan areas. I think the Internet has a lot to do with it. I know that when I was young I knew that I was different but I had nobody to identify with. We were very isolated. But now that’s not the case. Not only are more kids starting to figure out who they are, but more and more, parents are also starting to understand and do what’s best for their children. 

Children can always go off hormone blockers. And they can always go back to court to get their legal gender and legal identification changed back. Both of these are reversible. However, I will say that in my experience of many decades with both adults and children, I have taken—oh golly, I don’t know how many, I know the number exceeds a thousand—and I’ve only had one, one, only one, and it was an adult, who went back. 

The general speech that you hear on television, on newscasts, in the media—and this is even before Caitlyn [Jenner] came out—you started seeing and hearing the word transgender more. 



The Indy: Caitlyn Jenner has been the most high-profile trans person to come out in recent years. She now has her own reality TV show called I Am Cait that focuses on her transition and life as a woman. Do you think this genre of reality TV shows featuring trans people like Caitlyn help to reinforce or remove taboos surrounding being trans?


PRF: First of all, I don’t watch reality television. I am an old fart. I watch PBS, HBO, Showtime, Encore, stuff like that. That’s not a slam on Caitlyn, I just don’t watch reality TV. I’m very glad that she came out. From the little bit I’ve seen, she has done a wonderful thing coming out. I am terribly sad that she had to wait so late in her life to come out because I know what a horrible life experience she must have gone through hiding and hiding and hiding. I’m glad she’s out and in the media. I’m glad that other people are learning from her and watching her.

When I was starting to come out, I was dealing with Renee Richards coming out. She was, oh, wonderful back then too to come out. I have her book sitting right here on my bookshelf about four feet away from me in my office. I’ve lived this all my life. Somebody else coming out is kind of an old hat. I’m not overly, personally, excited about her public coming out. Good for Cait. I hope to meet her some day.



The Indy: Not to harp on Cait, but given that it’s been so public, there’s been a lot of focus on the physical aspects of her transition. What importance do you think should be placed on procedures such as gender reassignment surgery? What in your view are the fundamental steps that should be taken when one transitions from one gender identity to another? 


PRF: Surgical intervention is a very personal experience. Coming out is a very personal experience. As a lawyer and as an advocate, when I was coming out and going through law school out, back then, everybody was focused on surgery. They just had to have surgery. So many people got surgery— I’m talking about male to female, because that’s who mostly everybody was back then.



The Indy: Why were they mostly people transitioning from male to female and not the other way around?


PRF: That was back then. Now people are just coming out like crazy. People I work with in court right now – it’s about 50/50.  But back then, people were getting surgery before they even had their electrolysis, the removal of their beard, and before they got their names changed. I thought that was ridiculous because the only person who’s going to see the results of your surgery are you and whoever you’re intimate with. No one else can see that. I became one of the early advocates for getting your legal stuff done first. Because how in the world are you going to be able to get a job if you haven’t gotten your name and your gender ID changed. Your employer isn’t going to check out your surgery. They’re going to look at your face and look at your ID. What’s important is the real life experience in making the transition in your gender expression and getting your legal stuff done. Whatever else you do—that’s private. If that’s the message that’s being pushed nowadays through reality TV, then that is the correct message. What you choose to do is your business. You don’t have sex with the world. You’re not intimate with the world. You express your gender to the world in your appearance, name and legal documents. 



The Indy: In many ways, and as you know from experience, it must be significantly easier to go through gender transition today. Despite all the gains that have been made, what do you think are the obstacles that the trans movement still faces?


PRF: Sure, there’s a lot of people out there who hate us. So what? There’s people who still hate black people. There’s people who still hate brown people. Racism is not dead in the United States. Neither is homophobia or transphobia. There are a lot of obstacles out there. We just have to be out, be who we are, and just by our own experience educate those close to us. You’ve just got out, be out, that’s all. Look at Black Lives Matter. I think they’re doing wonderful stuff. Just because they’re getting some bad press, or that some ugly people are saying ugly things about them, does that mean that they should quit? No. We’re not going to quit either.

I’m very proud of what’s going on. I just go about my life, everyday. I’m very much out of the closet everywhere I go. If people don’t like it, they’re just going to have to get over it. My transition was horrible. But we stayed there and we stuck it out. I think we’re doing just fine.