The Black, Queer, Gender-Nonbinary Lawyer Who Inspired RBG
How have I never heard of Pauli Murray before? That’s the question you’ll ask after learning about the late feminist trailblazer who made more history than they get credit for.
“I want to see America be what she says she is in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. America, be what you proclaim yourself to be!”
The words from lawyer, writer, activist, and, in a late-life twist, priest Pauli Murray open the new documentary aptly named My Name Is Pauli Murray, a rousing crash-course introduction to the life and legacy of a trailblazer history books have largely overlooked.
It’s a resonant message, as applicable when Murray first penned the patriotic plea decades ago as it is now, at a crossroads time for a country still grappling with many of the same issues that motivated Murray’s lifelong fight.
We’re long overdue for an education on Murray’s work; in addition to having influenced and inspired the careers of Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court rulings as recent as last year were decided based on the legal framework they created.
There couldn’t be a better time than now to delve into the experience and vision of a brilliant, queer, Black, gender-nonconforming scholar whose greatest, bravest accomplishments were motivated by their desire for more opportunity and dignity than the status quo provided—and to challenge institutions and leaders to confront the ills in which they’re complicit.
The documentary is, in a way, an answer to the question that watching it raises: How have we never heard of Pauli Murray before?
My Name Is Pauli Murray arrived at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered this week, with a great deal of enthusiasm, as it’s the follow-up from directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen to their 2018 documentary RBG. The new film echoes the kickass feminist warrior rah-rah spirit that frames a history lesson as a crowd-pleasing hero’s tale. It’s a broad but appealing feel-good note to strike at a time when the booming sounds of darkness and chaos could use some drowning out.
Yet even a rose-colored lens filmmaking approach can’t distort the grit and pain in Murray’s journey; the film is a testament to their life-long frankness about their lot in life as a Black person seeking betterment in this country. (Murray’s gender identity is a major topic in the film. Some interviewees refer to Murray “she” and others use “they.” We will use they/them in this piece.)
To that point, one of the first times we hear Murray’s voice in the documentary, they are saying this: “My whole personal history has been a struggle to meet standards of excellence in a society which has been dominated by the ideas that Blacks were inherently inferior to whites and women were inherently inferior to men.”
Murray was born in 1910 in Baltimore but was raised by their grandparents and aunt in Durham, North Carolina. At age 3, their mother suddenly died of a brain hemorrhage and their father was subsequently committed. It was a mixed-race family, and some of their relatives could “pass” for white, which led to an onslaught of prejudice from both the local white and Black communities.
Growing up, Murray was smart and inquisitive, but also a free spirit determined to live the way they pleased. When they refused to wear dresses, preferring to present as a boy in pants and button-up shirts, their aunt struck a deal in which they could wear pants during the week but had to wear a dress to church on Sundays.
An upbringing in the Jim Crow South is something that motivated every major life choice they made. As the documentary reminds, there were 50 or 60 people Black people a year being lynched at the time, killings not covered in the papers but whispered about through word of mouth through the communities. Awareness of the Ku Klux Klan followed Murray like a constant shadow. “This awareness to a child of my generation grows with you... almost a part of your body and your being,” they said.
Murray is the kind of historic figure who has won not just admirers, but a bona fide fan club. They talk about Murray like they’re feteing a star athlete or comic-book superhero. “Pauli Murray is so spectacular, that I literally cannot cover all her firsts and all her dopeness,” preaches Professor Brittney Cooper, hyping her students up for a lecture on Murray’s accomplishments.
The recurring chorus from most of the people interviewed for the documentary—historians, biographers, former classmates, family members, Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself—is that they were ahead of their time with what they wanted from this country and what they thought they would be able to accomplish when it comes to equal rights. Finally, the rest of us are catching up.
Murray didn’t want to attend segregated schools, so their aunt took them to New York, where they attended Hunter College. They became one of four Black women in a group of 247 female classmates.
Many of their milestones are demarcated in the film by how many years they accomplished it before some more famous incident in the history books.
In 1938, they applied to the University of North Carolina, despite the fact that colleges and universities were still segregated. They were told that the Constitution prohibited the school from admitting someone of her race. Not satisfied, they launched a media blitz, gaining national news coverage for being turned down. They fired off a protest letter to President Roosevelt and, when he didn’t answer, sent one to Eleanor Roosevelt, too.
“I have read the copy of the letter you sent me and I understand perfectly, but great changes come slowly,” Roosevelt responded. “I think they are coming, however, and sometimes it is better to fight hard with conciliatory methods. The South is changing, but don’t push too fast. There is a great change in youth, for instance, and that is a hopeful sign.”
It was the start of a decades-long friendship between the two, livened by the fact that Murray was not intimidated by the first lady’s lauded status and routinely held her feet to the fire to make change. When Roosevelt penned an essay for Ebony magazine titled “Some of My Best Friends Are Negroes,” she praised Murray as “a firebrand.”
Years later, when President Kennedy put Roosevelt in charge of the Commission on the Status of Women, Roosevelt appointed Murray to the committee. Murray would also become a founding member of the National Organization of Women (NOW).
In 1940, 15 years before Rosa Parks, they and a friend were arrested for refusing to move to a broken seat in the back of a bus when it crossed the Mason-Dixon line on a trip from New York to Durham. Once they were released from jail, Murray reached out to the NAACP hoping to bring a case that would get a ruling that declared segregated seating unconstitutional. In the end, the judge dropped the segregation statute and said they were disturbing the peace.
“At the time I felt only the bitter disappointment of a personal defeat,” Murray said. “But I began to sense we were a small part of a teamwork effort, which envisioned the ultimate overthrow of all segregation law.” They made the decision to go to law school so they would have a weapon in their arsenal for the fight against segregation.
In 1943, 17 years before the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter sit-in in North Carolina, Murray and her classmates at Howard University’s law school succeeded in desegregating U Street in Washington, D.C.
In 1944, 10 years before the Supreme Court overruled the doctrine of separate but equal, they wrote a senior paper about Plessy v. Ferguson arguing that it’s the “separate” part of the doctrine that must be abolished, because of the burden and devaluation it puts on the life of the person who is separated and made inferior. At the time, the argument was dismissed. Later, however, it would be the basis of Thurgood Marshall’s legal strategy in Brown v. Board of Education. Murray’s work was argued in front of the Supreme Court, albeit anonymously.
And in 1965, five years before Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s first Supreme Court case for gender equality, it was Murray who made the call to the ACLU suggesting that Ginsburg should be on the board. When Ginsburg argued her case, she relied on Murray’s previous analysis. “We were not inventing something new,” Ginsburg said. “We were saying the same things that Pauli had said years earlier at a time when society was not prepared to listen.”
My Name Is Pauli Murray spends much time on the complicated personal details of Murray’s life. Murray had kept careful notes about their identity crises, which were later donated along with the rest of their papers to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University.
The papers included letters to doctors explaining that while they appeared to be a woman, they felt they were really a man. There were anxieties about their sexuality. In one romance with a woman, they wanted the relationship to be structured with Murray living as a man and the partner as a woman, which she wouldn’t do. When the relationship ended, Murray was hospitalized for a mental breakdown, asking doctors to help them understand their attraction to women.
Later in life, they would go from doctor to doctor asking for testosterone treatments, insisting that they had undescended testes. They even underwent exploratory surgery certain that the doctor would find them.
Some have argued that all of this is irrelevant to Murray’s legacy and accomplishments. But biographer Rosalind Rosenberg, who wrote Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray, argued that Murray’s feeling of “inbetweenness” is what made them so increasingly critical of boundaries. “That allowed her to make one of the most important ideas of the 20th century, that the categories of race and gender are essentially arbitrary and not a legal basis for discrimination,” Rosenberg says in the film.
One of the final curiosities of Murray’s life led to yet another blazed trail: the decision to be ordained as an Episcopal priest; they were the first female-presenting Black person ordained. But even after their death in 1985, their work continues to be a living, breathing, active part of modern history.
Case in point: In 2020, building on Murray’s work, the ACLU won a Supreme Court case prohibiting discrimination against lesbian, gay, and transgender people. So we know their work. Now, hopefully, we’ll know their name.