Pauli Murray: 'Man in the Mirror'

Saint Pauli Murray

Saint Pauli Murray

          In the pantheon of Black Queer Brilliance, Pauli Murray is an often overlooked figure. Many aspects and accomplishments of her professional life are well known. She graduated first in her class from Howard Law; became the first African-American to receive a doctor of Juridical Science from Yale, and the first black woman to be vested as an Episcopal priest ( she is now Saint Pauli Murray).  She had a lifetime of pioneering firsts, truly ahead of her time. Yet, with all of these seminal accomplishments, her story is wholly incomplete. She kept the details of her private life minimal in the public sphere. It is fair to say that many may not know who she really was. Pauli Murray was a man.

          Rosenberg, in Jane Crow, unearths the haunting history that Pauli omitted from her autobiography.  She notes that as early as nineteen, Pauli began to experience a number of breakdowns and hospitalizations because of her struggles with gender and sexuality. She also believed her attraction to women was because of her “inner maleness". Rosenberg uses “she" pronouns for Pauli, as do I since she is not here to change her pronouns, but I honor the truth of who she saw herself as:


 “Maybe two got fused into one with parts of each sex,”….”male head and brain, female-ish body, mixed emotional characteristics”….”one of nature’s experiments; a girl who should have been a boy.”

          Throughout her life she made attempts to obtain testosterone and to prove that she had, as she felt, more testosterone in her body.  Although she was unsuccessful in her early attempts at transition, she channeled her passions to end what she termed Jane Crow. She sent this response when Harvard denied her admission:

“Gentlemen, I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds on this subject. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other?”

          In this age of media, we know how important it is to have positive images, real and imagined. I can’t explain the sigh of relief, excitement and hope when I read about Pauli’s story. As a Black non-binary person, I emphasize and sympathize with Pauli's silence around her gender and sexuality. Black families keep secrets, but it is important to highlight her story, for Black GNC-trans people in particular. While we can speculate or presume that Pauli would be trans/GNC today, it is so fitting that she has been canonized. Saints have no gender.

Related Articles:

Rosalind Rosenberg - Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray