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LGBTQ x Black History Month Pauli Murray

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During Black History Month, the narrative is typically constructed to highlight Black people who have achieved greatness, but so often leaves those who also identify as LGBTQ+ and gender non conforming out of the conversation. This year, CASSIUS disrupts the mundane by highlighting Black queer and trans luminaries whose lives and work deserve celebration. 

Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray was a scholar, lawyer, and Episcopalian priest who championed both the civil rights and women’s equality movements. Raised in Durham, N.C., she was the descendant of enslaved Africans and knew from a young age that she wanted to escape the South. She moved to New York after high school to attend Hunter College. During that time, she became friends with greats like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, and attended lectures by Mary McLeod Bethune.

After working in New York for various causes aimed at fighting inequality, racism, and poverty, she entered Howard University School of Law in 1941 as the only woman. She coined the term “Jane Crow” to describe the level of sexism that she endured there. Her senior thesis, titled “Should the Civil Rights Cases and Plessy Be Overruled?” argued that Plessy v. Ferguson (separate but equal) was immoral and should be overturned. While many of her classmates believed this insinuation was hilarious, she argued fervently that segregation was a “monster” that “must be rooted out of our national life.”

The joke was on them — she graduated top of her class.

In 1944, she applied to Harvard Law School for her masters. Even though she had stellar grades and a letter of recommendation from U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she was denied on the basis of “not being of the sex entitled to be admitted.” She continued her education at Berkley and was named Deputy Attorney General in California, making her the first African American woman in the state’s attorney general’s office.

In 1951, Murray wrote States’ Laws on Race and Color, a 746-page book detailing every segregation law and practice throughout the country. This would become the “bible,” as per Thurgood Marshall, for lawyers working on Brown v. Board of Education and other civil rights cases. After becoming a prominent attorney in New York and a senior lecturer at Ghana School of Law, she was accepted at Yale where she pursued her doctorate.

While working on her thesis, she was nominated to the President’s Commission on Status of Women with the help of her mentor and friend Eleanor Roosevelt. Within this role, she developed an argument using Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to challenge discrimination based on sex. After graduating from Yale, she and Wisconsin lawyer Mary Eastwood published an essay called “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII” that Ruth Bader Ginsburg would eventually use to challenge sex discrimination in Reed v. Reed. In ’79 she was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity.

While Murray was known for being a lesbian and fighting for women’s rights, it is also believed that today she might have identified as gender non conforming or a trans man if she had access to such language. In the ’30s she asked doctors if they could give her male hormones, referring to her life “somewhat unbearable in its present phase.” In a piece from The New Yorker, the writer details the mental breakdowns she suffered as a result of her inner struggles with sexual and gender identities. She tried to ask the surgeon to check her abdominal cavity and reproductive system for evidence of hidden male genitalia. In her diary she wrote about how the “conflict” would rise up to knock her down, not allowing her to truly enjoy the highs of her career.

As Professor Brittney Cooper wrote in her piece featuring Murray for Salon, it’s important to remember Murray in the spirit of queer and feminist Black civil rights activism. 

“The civil rights struggle demanded respectable performances of Black manhood and womanhood, particularly from its heroes and heroines, and respectability meant being educated, heterosexual, married and Christian,” she wrote. “Murray’s open lesbian relationships and her gender nonconforming identity disrupted the dictates of respectability, making it easier to erase her five decades of important intellectual and political contributions from our broader narrative of civil rights.”

Murray’s part in Black liberation, as well as the women’s rights movement, is undeniable. We lift her up and remember her for her brilliance, dedication, and resilience.