The non-conformist

Patrick Mulcahy on the life of a queer trailblazer

What makes one person iconic for an act of defiance and another person not? This question is raised by Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s whistle-stop 90-minute documentary, My Name is Pauli Murray. Pauli’s life story is big enough for four motion pictures, encompassing racial prejudice, gender non-conformity, a long-running correspondence with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, being out of step with radical 1970s students and changing careers late in life (after securing tenure as a law professor) to become an Episcopal Minister. The gender non-conformity point is important. Pauli’s aunt described her as ‘my girl boy’. As a child, Pauli wore trousers six days a week, and a dress only for church. Today, Pauli would be referred to the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘their’. I shall do just that.

At the time of their death in 1985, Pauli had just completed their autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, published posthumously. Among their many achievements, they organised sit-ins in the 1940s to desegregate restaurants, and went to jail for refusing to sit in the back of a bus in March 1940 (over a decade before Rosa Parks achieved fame for doing the same). As a top-of-their-class Howard University law student in 1944, Pauli argued that the 1896 judgement, ‘Plessy v Ferguson’, the foundation of the lawfulness of segregation – African Americans being deemed separate but equal – would be overturned in 25 years if lawyers would focus on the ‘separate’ part of that judgement. It took ten years, following a judgement on the case ‘Brown v The Board of Education’. Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights lawyer, used Pauli’s paper to form the basis of the successful prosecution.

If I was pitching four movies about Pauli, what would they be? The first would be about their experiences in the Great Depression in the 1930s, riding box cars dressed in young man’s clothing, passing themselves off as male to avoid being raped. Pauli cultivated the friendship of a young woman, Peggy Holmes, who refused to accept Pauli as a man. The second would be about their activism during wartime, culminating in their admittance into law school. The third would be about their experiences as a law professor at Brandeis during the era of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, rejected by their students for amongst other things their use of the word ‘Negro’. The fourth would be about their relationship with a married woman – letters between them were signed variously as ‘Charlie Brown’, ‘Linus’ and ‘007’, the double O’s linked together to form a pair of spectacles. Pauli didn’t just have a second act in their American life – they had four of them.

There is more. Pauli pledged their support to Betty Friedan during the formation of the National Organization for Women. Pauli wrote poetry. Their work was also used by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the film’s interviewees and the subject of West and Cohen’s previous documentary, RBG. I confess it was thrilling to see Ginsburg turn up; it was like meeting an old friend who hadn’t changed a bit.

In telling Pauli’s story, West and Cohen, who wrote the script with Talleah Bridges McMahon and Cinque Northern, have an enormous amount of written material to draw upon – including 135 boxes of papers donated to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University – but very few people who knew Pauli really well. Pauli did help disadvantaged African American students, two of whom are interviewed. Did the men know she was gay? “We kinda knew but didn’t say anything,” one of them replies.

The film is at its clunkiest when Pauli’s legacy is discussed by a group of students. When one non-binary interviewee says they wish they knew Pauli existed earlier, you feel the emphasis is drawn away from the film’s subject. Intertitles insist on Pauli being ahead of their time with hammer-blow regularity to the point of overkill.

On Pauli’s correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt, West and Cohen don’t entirely satisfy our curiosity. How many letters did they exchange and at what point did they stop writing? (Eleanor died in 1962.) Pauli was certainly critical of Eleanor’s husband, Franklin, and his silence in the face of racial violence, which as president he addressed only obliquely.

Pauli’s struggles with their sexual identity – submitting themselves to gynaecological examinations to determine whether they had hidden male genitalia – are poignant, as is her late in life romance. They were an inveterate letter writer; the machine gun thud of typewriter keys underscores some scenes. According to the filmmakers, Pauli relished the challenge of proving a point – in particular arguing for tenure in the light of diminished appreciation of their achievement. Religion finally proved a form of solace – West and Cohen show archive footage of her during service.

Whilst a college at Yale University was named after Pauli Murray in 2017, Pauli themselves had not reached iconic status. Their unconventional life was not hitherto considered an inspiration to change social attitudes. However, in shining a light on Pauli, West and Cohen make the case for them as an Exceptional American, with their beatific smile radiating a compassion that they were never fully afforded in life.

My Name is Pauli Murray is available to stream on Amazon Prime from Friday 17 September 2021.

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