All four lines on each of the three phones were ringing, bright yellow buttons flashing like a line of sparklers. This should have thrilled us two lesbian lawyers, beginning a new law practice in Portland. The sky had dawned blue and promising on English & Metcalf's opening day in 1980. Oregon's "first openly gay" law firm was about to do serious business.
The problem was that the phones were on the floor, and other than those phones, there was no furniture in the three rooms of the rented office space. Sitting forlornly alone on the barren carpet, the phones yelped like a stuck record of bings and bells.
We had expected to have time to go to City Liquidators and choose desks and chairs for the two of us, file cabinets, a couch for the waiting room, office supplies, a microwave, fridge, and phony plants. We hadn't even installed a message machine yet to tape the call or two we expected to receive that baptismal morning.
Panicked, I answered each line, faking my best nasal receptionist voice, while Janet frantically read the directions for hooking up the tape recorder.
"English and Metcalf, may I help you?" "Yes, we do." "No, she's on the other line, but may I take a message and have her call you?" I imagined that other line—a clothesline, my own self hung up with wooden pins; a hangman's noose with Janet dangling at the end of it. "Certainly, let me repeat that number."
Janet waved her success and I let the next line switch over to the machine, then quickly called the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church on the line I had just freed. I was sweating.
Pastor Don listened to me babbling, trying to explain the crisis.
"We have just the legal secretary for you, Katharine," he soothed, eager to help. "She just quit Schwabe Williamson because she's sick of working for a major law firm. She's been filling in for us here. We all know about your new venture. I know she'd be thrilled to work for you."
"Send her over ASAP," I cried in relief.
"There’s only one possible problem."
There couldn't be any problem as far as I could see. We desperately needed a secretary. We would find a compatible lesbian secretary at MCC and the phones would be answered. But best to check. "She's a Godsend," I enthused, oblivious to the irony, "What could possibly be a problem?"
"She's TS," Pastor Don said neutrally.
"Not a problem, Don." I nearly shouted, "We don't discriminate at this law firm against anyone. Of course!"
In Hawaii, my friends, Judge Frances Wong and her husband, Bud Grossmann, had two children with disabilities—David, who had MD, and Elizabeth, who had a learning disability. Very close to the children, I visited often, and I'd seen the struggles David had with his wheelchair, his inability to walk well because of the progression of his muscular dystrophy, and the difficulties Elizabeth had in school. It was inconceivable to me that we couldn't accommodate a woman with TS. Whatever we had to do would be done. I felt the warm glow of self-righteousness fold over me like a sacramental scarf.
"I'll send her right down," Don enthused. What a miraculous solution. Janet was pleased.
Two hours later, phones still ringing, messages filling up the machine, Paula Nielsen appeared in our door.
"Hi, I'm Paula," she said, bright with a smile.
Now, thirty-six years later, I have remembered the scene, imagining it over and over, recounting it time and again, each time more dramatically, exaggerated to fit what I felt, not necessarily what I saw. Janet assures me the events occurred much more benignly than I recall, and that the apparition in the doorway, which was Paula, was far less profound than I envisioned. But my whole being imagines it this way, and so this is the way I tell it.
Her voice—HI, I'M PAULA—was thunder, deep from the belly of bulging, ominous rain clouds, rumbly and damp. Startled, I looked up from the floor, where I was taking down messages on a pad borrowed from the Sierra Club office next door. What I saw was a woman blocking the doorway, a massive rectangular pillar, like a large, concrete form holding up a freeway. A wig sat slightly sloped on her square head, which nearly touched the door lintel. There was no air between her and the frame.
From her thick shoulders to her calves a chiffon-like dress waved, as multicolored as a giant prayer flag, messy and floating around her in disarray, as if billowed by a wind. She wore flats on which she was rocking back and forth, waiting for our welcome. I stared at an alarming five-o'clock shadow on her chin. I felt the air sucked out of the office.
Cool as a stalk of celery, Janet moved toward this apparition and held out her hand "Hi, Paula, I'm Janet," then looked at me pointedly, "and this is Katharine."
No, I thought, this is definitely not Katharine, not the radical lesbian feminist about to fight the bastions of suppression in anti-gay society, not Katharine, the brave and righteous dyke determined to win lawsuits against moguls and monsters that discriminated with blatant aplomb. No, this is the real Katharine, electrified from shock, sitting sizzled to the carpet shag. This is the Katharine who is longing to run through a door blocked by an unbreachable Paula Bunyan of a woman/man, who stood patiently smiling a frozen dare.
I stumbled awkwardly to my feet and stood as straight as possible, yet I came hardly above her waist. I looked up at what I remember as her double chin and croaked, "Hi."
"Paula, would you mind if we all go off to Old Wives Tales for a cup of coffee and an interview? If you'll wait here, we'll be just a moment," Janet said smoothly. "And, Katharine, can I see you in my office?"
Paula nodded cheerfully. "Certainly."
"Certainly," I said primly.
I turned and marched behind Janet into her bare office; she shut the door.
"What's the matter with you?" she asked quietly, but intensely.
My face was red and hot; I could hardly catch my breath. "Never!" I shouted. "He's a man! I won't work with a man in this office."
"Katharine, settle down," she said, going to the window, pounding it open a crack.
Air. I needed air. I followed and pounded the window up higher. I turned to Janet defiantly. "We need to get the windows fixed."
"Pastor Don told us." Janet ignored the windows. "She's a transsexual."
"TS? TS? I thought it was a disease. I can deal with a disease. But she isn't a woman," I was apoplectic, shaking my fist at the door. "Did you see that beard?"
"There's no beard. Even if there was, that has nothing to do with how she can type."
"Type? You're worried about typing? What about when she answers the phone with that meatloaf voice? What about when clients come into the office and notice her helmeted hair and those sausage arms?" I don't know if I used those adjectives. I would certainly not use them today. I remember feeling the adjectives, sickened by the idea of men being women.
"And what kind of…of…frock is that she's wearing? Oh, my God, Janet, this is terrible, terrible."
Janet walked to the window, pounded it up some more, until finally it was all the way open. She looked out, to the other old buildings in this run-down, but historic, part of town. She was quiet. I paced back and forth in that empty room, snapping the straps on my de rigueur overalls, running my hands through my now lesbian-styled, short-cropped hair and, in a pout, every three steps or so, stomping my leather boots (having thrown aside any shoe that could be taken as a symbol of femininity.) "Goddess, what're we gonna do?"
"Katharine," Janet turned, spoke calmly. "We're going to hire her."
"Arghh." I choked on an exhale. Water. I needed water. Where was the fridge we were going to buy? "We need a fridge," I croaked.
I finally sat down on the floor, spent. Spent? I had spent the last few years getting rid of men. Divorced my husband. Cast off my lover. Tolerated having sons, now six and nine, marching them in every gay rights protests, teaching them chants ("Two, four, six, eight. Gay is just as good as straight,") taking them to women's music festivals, to the Mountain Moving Café where lesbians gathered to celebrate womanhood, where the boys played on the floor with their stealthily sneaked-in GI Joes and squirt guns, otherwise not allowed. Janet and I went with other women to the Portland State campus to lectures on the origins of sexuality, separatist doctrine, and female orgasms.
Now I was faced with having to work with not just a man, but a man pretending to be a woman, who was twice my size, had a voice like a pile driver, and wore lipstick thick as cherry cheesecake. Never!
I was beside myself, panicked with a panoply of inarticulate questions. Did she have a penis? I mean, did he have breasts? I mean, which bathroom did she-he use in public? Did she have a partner? Man? Woman? Hermaphrodite?
Janet brought me back to reality. She sat beside me, took my hands and said. "We do not discriminate. We fight against discrimination. She is a human being, a good secretary, probably types 110 words a minute, and can answer - the - phones."
The phones. I can relate to that. Still ringing. I can see it. We can borrow a chair from the Sierra Club office next door. Paula can sit on the chair in the waiting room. She can answer the phones. Janet and I can go off to City Liquidators, buy furniture, breathe.
Randomly, I think of the song in Guys and Dolls: "Marry the man today and change his ways tomorrow." We could hire the man today and fire the woman tomorrow. Possible.
Janet fingered her necklace, a small turquoise stone she always wore and fussed at when she was thinking. "Sweetheart," she said calmly, "here's the deal." She stood and pulled me to my feet.
I knew "the deal" was coming. It would be reasonable, as always. Janet was a rock, the rock for me. In the year we had been together she had insisted I stop yelling at the children, had insisted I re-write my poorly written legal memos and briefs, and had insisted I stop shoplifting small, unimportant items. I stood up, planted my feet and crossed my arms like a tree-hugging protester barring the entry of lumberjacks in the spotted owl's territory.
"What." I pouted.
"If you won't work with Paula, I won't work with you."
Wow! Really? No! Really? I stared past her, past the wrought iron fire escape, out the window across Portland's 2nd Avenue. Our office space was in the old Governor Building, sought and found after the very scary decision to leave our jobs. She had been a law clerk at the Oregon Supreme Court, and was with the Oregon State Appellate Division where she was an Assistant Attorney General. I had been an intern and a lawyer at the all-woman collective, the Community Law Project, a non-profit law firm where our lawyers had represented the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant protesters, poor tenants against slum landlords, filed the first sex discrimination lawsuit in Oregon, and fought for gay rights.
Janet and I had decided to open our own law firm, in which we intended to represent men who had been diagnosed with what was then called HTLV3 and eventually named AIDS; gays and lesbians being discriminated against in housing, employment, and public accommodations; and gay men and lesbians seeking custody of or visitation with their children. I would be the trial lawyer; Janet would be the appellate lawyer.
I had been dreaming this dream since I entered law school in 1974; Janet had begun dreaming it as well, when we met in 1979. And now the dream was about to become a reality.
Except that we had no furniture, no secretary, a man-cum-woman-cum-man sitting in the outer office waiting to be hired, and my partner threatening to shatter the dream. Had I done something to offend the Goddess to deserve this fate? And had She really given me any option now? I was trapped.
I said, nonchalantly, to save my dignity, "OK. Sure. No big deal."
We hired Paula. How little did I know then how much I had to learn, how she would open the door to my unlearning my prejudice, and how I would come to appreciate and love this fabulous woman. Woman, mind you. Woman.
* 2016 Note: Paula became "Sister Paula, Trans Evangelist." See her on YouTube.
Katharine English, with her lesbian partner, opened the first LGBT law firm in Oregon in 1980. She practiced law at English and Metcalf, representing gay men and lesbians who suffered the discrimination of the early '80's: men with the "gay plague," lesbians seeking custody in a divorce, and gay couples seeking to protect their joint assets. She then served on Portland’s family court bench for fourteen years, and was chief judge of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde for seven subsequent years. She is now retired, living in Utah.
She graduated from Portland State University, Lewis and Clark Law School, and Goddard College, where she earned an MFA in creative writing. She self-published her first memoir: Salvation – A Judge's Memoir of a Mormon Childhood (Amazon), which won First Place in the 2016 Utah Department of Arts and Museums Original Writing Competition. This selection is from her second memoir in-progress: Lavender Shingle.