Written by Artemis Tally
2018 has proven to be a very interesting year so far, and it’s only the second month in. Representation of black people in mainstream media is on the rise. Especially with the release of the highly anticipated superhero blockbuster Black Panther. The movie has beautiful artwork, has an incredible cast, and has broken all sorts of records and stereotypes.
With that, queer black people are also getting some spotlight. Another black superhero series is airing on the CW called Black Lightning. This show features an open black lesbian who also very important to the plot and also develops her own powers. She even shares a few intimate moments on screen with her girlfriend, which is super incredible all in itself.
It’s so nice to see black and brown people starting to shift the media into telling stories now. What I am interested in is seeing those stories along with stories of those in the past who also made it through. Black Queer Trailblazers have always been there throughout history, but sometimes their work and involvement get shunted into the background. Luckily, Black History Month is a time where people can share these forgotten heroes and uncover new perspectives on the world we know today.
This year, I would love to give the spotlight to an incredible individual who helped fight discrimination of race and gender, Pauli Murray. Her writings were a critical key to helping ending legal racial segregation and she challenged sexism and gender discrimination.
Many might be asking, why did I include her in Black LGBT History? Well, there are many accounts of her presenting very masculine. There were diary entries that even spoken about her gender identity and attraction to women as well. I would argue that she was in fact, transgender. It is hard to use modern labels on history and sometimes being problematic, but I believe that if the term existed, she would have used it. There are poems and diary entries of her talking about looking for the answer to why she felt different. We have to remember that gay and transgender were two lines that blurred and mixed together back in the day. She used the term lesbian/homosexual for herself since that was all that existed back then and even transexual wasn’t a term being talked about widely yet. I also want to note that I only use she/her pronouns for Pauli because that's how she referred to herself in her own documents and writings.
Pauli Murray wrote many pieces talking about her experiences as a black woman living in America. She definitely talked about how she couldn’t separate her oppressions and how the layers added more pushback in her life. The term didn’t exist yet, but she definitely understood the concept behind “intersectionality”. We all have heard of this, well hopefully we are all familiar with this term, and know it to be coined by the scholar Kimberle Crenshaw decades later. Murray was an individual who wrote about and argued for it long before it was even a term.
Murray also wrote States’ Laws on Race and Color which was considered by Thurgood Marshall to be the “Bible for Civil Rights Lawyers”. Many used it as a way to know their rights and also help fight for those laws to be overturned. Her writings were also used in the famous court case, Brown vs. Board of Education. Her arguments of separate but equal being unconstitutional was a key to helping overthrow the precedent set by Plessy vs. Ferguson.
She was a passionate activist and advocate for women and black Americans. Pauli Murray worked with Bayard Rustin (another openly gay black man), Martin Luther King Jr. and many other famous activists of the time. She was critical of the organizations as well. She noticed how black women were not in a leadership position and was loud in questioning why this was the case.
Murray pushed very hard for equality and just wanted to be free from the oppression that exhausted her on the daily. There are many accounts of her being hospitalized regularly because of her mental health. She tried hard to get treatment, but this was before the wide use of hormone therapy. It was nearly impossible to even get access, let alone pay for it. Throughout her life, she was denied many jobs because of her race or her gender, or sometimes both.
Even though all the resistance, all of the pain, she persisted. Pauli went on to live with a single partner, a woman named Irene Barlow for many decades. She had died of brain cancer in 1973. It was a hard blow for Murray. She persisted nonetheless and became the first African American woman Episcopal priest in 1977. She lived a quiet life until her death in 1985.
Pauli Murray’s story is so important and something that is needed to be talked about more. She did so much for the Civil Rights movement and also the Women’s Movement. In this time of tension in America, we need to be guided by the power and strength of Pauli. We must remember to resist those who try to push us down and silence our voices. Her story is also important to show queer and trans black people that you can make a change. Sometimes we are only told and shown the bad, but there are more stories out there. It’s time to uncover them.
Rest in Power Pauli Murray,
May you continue to inspire many generations to come.
Artemis is a Grand Valley State University student. They are studying social work with a minor in LGBT studies. Artemis is a leader of 3 different student organizations on GV campus and also works a part time job. In the little off time they have, they can be found either sleeping or watching Netflix in their cozy apartment.
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