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  • Writer's pictureStar Williams

Queer'oes 2: Dr. Pauli Murray

Updated: Oct 17, 2018

Dr. Pauli Murray writes at her desk, with bookshelves in the background. She is smiling.
By Carolina Digital Library and Archives, via Wikimedia Commons (see end of post for license)

Content: Includes discussion of racism and homophobia, a trans person being denied medication, and a tough childhood in which Dr. Murray was orphaned.

When I found out about Dr. Pauli Murray, I was tired. So tired that I was considering whether I wanted to tell folks I was non-binary any more. (All those questions! God, those questions are leaving me wiped.) I was recovering from having moved countries twice in the past year. When we attempted to live in the UK, my old homeland, my partner was refused access to testosterone, even though he'd been taking T for years. Then, when, after legal threats galore, he managed to get the testosterone, it was a different formulation to the U.S. version and his system couldn't tolerate it.

This, along with a load of daily harassment from the person who lived upstairs from us, not to mention the fact our landlord was selling our apartment, helped us see that we had to move back home.

Now we're back. And there's Trump. Still.

I'm tired.

But I bet Dr. Pauli Murray felt tired too. How did she manage to make so many changes to the world, as a black, lesbian, gender non-conforming lawyer? Did you know that fifteen years before Rosa Parks' similar protest, Murray was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus where the seats were broken? This act of defiance broke the law in Virginia at the time, and Murray was arrested.

I bet that was pretty damn tiring, to say the least. But it didn't hold her back. She achieved profound amounts of activism, including making such powerful legal arguments in a seminar paper that they were picked up and used by Thurgood Marshall in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. [Read more about Murray's tremendous works in this article at Salon by Brittney Cooper.]

Thank goodness she wasn't too tired to write that paper.

On those buses, both Dr. Murray and Rosa Parks did something powerful with the tiredness they surely felt. I can only imagine the bravery that must have been needed to refuse to obey a law that marginalizes and abuses you, and those like you, by refusing to give up your seat so you're ultimately arrested. In researching, I found this quote from Rosa Parks:

"People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired but that isn’t true," said Rosa Parks. "I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day … No the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

Isn't it strange how certain people will always try and rob us of our rebellions, especially when our identities are marginalized? How they'll say, "Oh, they must just have been tired," rather than saying, "They must have been truly courageous"? We humans will always find excuses that seek to shrink powerful acts—especially when they are performed by women of color. Such is white supremacy. Such is oppression.

Tired? Sure. Parks didn't let that stop her.

But heck, why is Rosa Parks' protest well-known, whereas Dr. Pauli Murray's, which came many years before, remains comparatively silenced? Because Dr. Murray was a lesbian of color? Because she was gender non-conforming—and presented as such? Brittney Cooper at Salon writes, "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."

Sadly, that makes sense.

Truth is, Dr. Pauli Murray had a plethora of reasons to be tired. Even during her childhood, she was tragically robbed of two parents. But in spite of being marginalized on so many levels, Murray always persisted. She spoke out, took action, refused, contributed.

She even wrote about it.

"Hope is a song in a weary throat," wrote Murray in her poem, Dark Testament. "Give me a song of hope / And a world where I can sing it." (Thanks to the Pauli Murray Project, you can read more here.)

Tired? I bet. But we can take a big, queer lesson out of Dr. Pauli Murray's book.

We may be weary. We may be spent.

But when we find a song, let's sing it.


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