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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Transgender Jurist

Judge Phyllis Frye
Courtesy NYT
The front page of the Sunday New York Times occasionally provides grist for this blog's post-mill. Some Sundays, like today, we just cannot pass-up a good legal story; this one is straight out of Houston, Texas.

Judge Phyllis Randolph Frye, the equivalent of a municipal or district court judge, adorns today's Sunday NYT, above the fold in her black robe, confidently holding her gavel. Judge Frye is a transgender female; believed to be the first sitting jurist to publicly proclaim her gender reassignment.

While such socio-political headlines are, no doubt, perpetually at the disposal of the NYT's left-leaning editorial board, and while a headline like this morning's only comes on a proverbial "slow news day", the subject of transgender rights and discrimination is at the progressive cutting-edge of our nation's evolving civil rights movement.

Opportunities to advance the legal status of transgender individuals exist in the post-Windsor, post-April DeBoer world of marriage equality. Any real progress for transgenders, however, will be hard-fought, despite Caitlyn Jenner. Litigation is likely to arise from disputes at school and work, and from the intersection of state-provided benefits and entitlements.

Long before Caityin Jenner [in Vanity Fair] and Laverne Cox [in Orange is the New Black] re-branded the transgender lifestyle, Judge Frye was out there on the front lines being active for her cause, and paying the price. Her transgender status cost her everything most of us hold dear: family, employment, and happiness.

Being the only visible transgender judge in America has it's own kind of loneliness, to be sure. You have no real peers; community members that appear before you for sentencing will be tempted to vocally discount your authority, based solely on your appearance and well-known gender classification.

At one point, prior to earning a law degree and becoming a judge in 2010, Phyllis Frye was so depressed, she attempted suicide. As the NYT headline proclaims, the judge was once a pariah, shunned by the federal government, the department of defense, her profession, her father, mother and son, Judge Frye stuck with her life; stayed active, and eventually found value and a reason to live.

The NYT article describes the part-time judge's recent docket; a docket that would be the equivalent of a local district court judge here in Michigan: traffic tickets, criminal misdemeanors and landlord tenant disputes. Whether or not you agree with her "lifestyle", you have to admire her perseverance; she is an original and a survivor.

Only in America? Perhaps. But such issues will inevitably move through our democratic society and through our well-developed legal system. The fact that they do is a testament to the overall utility of that system.

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