QUEER VOICES
02/10/2015 09:05 am ET Updated May 02, 2017

How 'Respectablity Politics' Muted The Legacy Of Black LGBT Activist Pauli Murray

Every February during Black History Month, we recognize pioneers like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King who have pushed the civil rights agenda forward. However, the integral work of other activists is often ignored.

Rutgers University assistant professor Brittney Cooper joined HuffPost Live on Monday to discuss the exclusion of prominent black LGBT activists like Pauli Murray, who helped in the the progression of the civil rights movement.

From her campaign to matriculate into the University of North Carolina to her countless articles on race relations, Murray was an influential civil rights activist. Even with her list of accomplishments, Murray, who was of mixed-race heritage, saw her complex gender and sexual identity muted in favor of "respectability politics," Cooper said. Murray’s queer identity likely pushed the NAACP to ignore her case after she was arrested for refusing to move to the rear of a Virginia bus 15 years before Rosa Parks did the same thing in Alabama.

"When she desegregated a bus ... the NAACP would not take her case because when she was pulled off the bus, she was on the bus with a woman that might have been her partner," Cooper told host Marc Lamont Hill.

Murray is part of a long history of gender nonconforming activists who struggled with finding an identity outside of the gender binary, Cooper said. Murray preferred androgynous dress, had a short hairstyle and may have identified as a transgender male today, but she lacked the language to do so at the time.

"[When she was arrested] her performance was male, and she gave her name to the officers as Oliver," Cooper added. "She, at the end of her life, lived as a lesbian, because by the time we had the language for trans identity, she was a civil rights attorney, she was very well-respected, and respectability politics wouldn’t have allowed her at that late stage of her life to go back and adopt the trans performance that she was so searching for in the 1930s and '40s."

HuffPost

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