Transgender Houston attorney becomes a judge

HOUSTON — Thirty years ago, Phyllis Frye, a longtime activist for LGBT causes, could have been arrested for wearing women’s clothing in the Houston City Council chamber.

Frye, a transgender Houston attorney born as Phillip Frye, fought back tears last week as the mayor appointed her to a municipal bench in the same room where she helped repeal Houston’s “cross-dressing ordinance” in 1980.

“I almost started crying, because I remembered 31 years ago, in that very same chamber, I was subject to arrest,” Frye said.

The 63-year-old will hear traffic ticket cases and other low-level misdemeanor trials. Municipal judges are not elected, she noted.

Frye said she would be the first transgender judge in Texas. She knows of at least two transgender judges in other parts of the country.

Frye applied for the position several months ago and was vetted before being appointed by Mayor Annise Parker last Wednesday with seven other new associate judges.

“I think she’s a great addition to our judiciary,” the mayor said. “I’m very proud I was able to nominate her, and she agreed to serve.”

Frye joins 43 other associate municipal judges and 22 full-time municipal judges.

“I don’t want to underplay this, because I understand it is very significant,” Frye said. “But I don’t want to overplay it either. I don’t want people to think I am anything other than an associate municipal court judge.”

Three decades ago, Frye volunteered at City Hall when she worked to repeal an ordinance that allowed police to arrest men in women’s clothes and lesbians wearing fly-front jeans.

“Things have changed, and it’s pretty wonderful,” Frye said.

A graduate of Texas A&M, Frye was an Eagle Scout and an Aggie cadet. She also was a husband and a father.

Frye has practiced criminal defense law in Houston since 1986.

She now heads a six-lawyer firm and has parlayed her expertise in LGBT legal issues into a storied legal career — the latest chapter of which is her representation of Nikki Araguz, a transgender Wharton, Texas, widow embroiled in a legal battle to receive part of her firefighter husband’s death benefits.