Friday, April 28, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Judge Phyllis Randolph Frye's "My Son"

Before Phyllis Frye became known as the grandmother of the transgender movement, she was a parent--to a son who she chose not see for 16 years. They reunited in 1991, and Frye shared the story at the 1992 International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy.

Frye is the first openly transgender judge in Texas and one of the first openly transgender judges in the United States. Along with her private legal practice, she serves as an associate municipal judge in Houston, presiding over the same courtroom she had dreaded entering decades before, fearful that she would be swept up by the city's anti-cross-dressing laws.

Before that, she had spent the late 1970s and 1980s enduring neighborhood threats to her and her partner, and job discrimination that made it impossible for her to continue her work as an engineer. She was disowned by her family after she told them she was Phyllis, and no longer the Phillip Frye who had been an Eagle Scout and an Army lieutenant.

She went to law school in part to maintain her GI Bill stipend, but she quickly realized that a law degree would give her "the tools to defend myself against all the crap that was dished my way," she later told The New York Times. In the earliest years of her new career, Frye said she struggled with self-doubt about her abilities as a lawyer and advocate. But she was persistent in her efforts to build an active transgender community, and in arguing for her right to live with the same privileges she enjoyed when she was called Phillip.

Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said that she and Phyllis had benefited from being white, middle class and male before their transitions, when "suddenly I found myself marginalized. But I had always had the privilege to speak up. A lot of civil rights movements start from voiceless people. Our movement had a lot of voice-y people."

Frye rarely lost her voice. She charmed her fellow law students and lawyers with her big hats and unfailing courtesy, and she became an indefatigable organizer that convened some of the earliest nationwide conferences on transgender law, employment and health care. But during those years she was also speaking out in a more private way to her son, in an attempt to slowly rebuild that relationship. It is through the lens of this speech, preserved at the Digital Transgender Archive, that we learn what it cost her and other transgender individuals to "merely be true as to who we are."

What can you learn from this deeply personal speech?
  • Choose a strong, simple start. "My son is named Randy, and I love him very much." It's hard to get more direct than Frye is at the beginning of this speech, and the words couldn't be more powerful. Most of the talk proceeds like this, using plain language and a straightforward retelling of events. But in the spare few sentences with which she begins, she manages to show that a simple thing like sharing her son's birthday is not something that she and those in her audience can take for granted.
  • Remember that personal examples have their limitations. One of the interesting themes that Frye comes back to several times in the speech is that her decisions regarding her son are hers alone, and not meant to serve as the "correct" example for anyone in the audience. Her speech at the 1992 conference was part of a larger discussion about transgender parent rights, and she is quick to note that times have changed since she made the choice in 1976 to leave her son behind with his mother. By adding these caveats, Frye takes a respectful approach, acknowledging that even if she is a movement icon, many in her audience face significantly different challenges than she did.
  • Don't forget to look for ways to use the invisible visual. There are so many great examples in this speech of the invisible visual that creates a strong, memorable and persuasive image in a listener's mind. Many of the details of Frye's physical transition work as these visuals, but the image that sticks with me the most is her description of the missing "Y" in her PH_L signatures in the letters to her son, holding it back until he was willing to fill in the blank himself.
(Photo courtesy of Frye, Oaks, Benavidez and O'Neil)

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post)

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