How Long ‘til LGBT Future Month?

Audrey Sebatindira reflects on the legacy of Pauli Murray, highlighting their struggles and achievements as a transgender civil rights activist.

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When asked to write this Thought for the Week on LGBT History Month I thought immediately of Pauli Murray. Born in Maryland, USA in 1910, Murray was a civil rights activist, lawyer, poet, and Episcopalian priest. Among her many achievements, she co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966 alongside Betty Friedan, and her legal work paved the way for the landmark supreme court ruling in Brown v Board of Topeka, which de-segregated US schools.

Had she been born around a century later, she would also likely be described as trans. I use the she/her pronouns she used to describe herself in the latter years of her life, but Murray very frankly (albeit not publicly) identified as a man. According to one of her biographers, Murray struggled to find a label that fit her. She would sometimes refer to herself as homosexual, but never found a more accurate descriptor for what she knew she was: “a man in a woman’s body, or, alternatively, someone in between, tending toward the masculine”.[1]

Thinking about her life this week, I was struck by the choices she made that have helped make my own life more liveable. This is a big part of what this month is for: celebrating the sacrifices and achievements of our queer forerunners which make the lives of queer and straight people today more liveable. These choices include her championing of US civil rights, which sent ripples across the globe, but there are also her day-to-day choices. The fugitivity of her secret relationships with women, which brought joy as well as hardship, and which give us a blueprint for joyful queer fugitivity today, allowing those on the margin to feel less alone. And there’s her insistence, even though she ultimately failed, at being prescribed testosterone by doctors in order to feel more comfortable in her body. Her persistence, as well as the persistence of many unnamed others, contributed to our own ability to access gender-affirming care today. In short, Murray insisted on building a life for herself that was supposed to be impossible; her desire wasn’t regulated by the presence or absence of legal rights.

In gazing back at Murray and those unnamed others, I started to wonder how we will be gazed upon by people in the future. Specifically, it makes me think about what we’re doing today to make the lives of people in the future more liveable. If we treat LGBT History Month as an opportunity to engage in some speculative fiction, we can consider with equal importance both our treatment of queer people alive at present and our duty to queer people that don’t exist yet.

We should continue to rally for civil rights, including ensuring trans children in schools are protected and campaigning for the abolition of immigration policies that punish queer migrants. This will benefit queer and straight people at present and hopefully in future. And we can also do more. The arc of the moral universe is bent, painstakingly, towards justice and that arc is characterised as much by periods of backlash as by obstinate progress. What always persists even when laws are repealed and societies take steps backwards (which history tells us will happen again and again) is the day-to-day resistance forged by people for whom freedom is a daily practice as well as something fought for in the arena of government politics.

For example, it’s good and right that under today’s conditions Murray would struggle less to be prescribed testosterone. But I worry, too, about the current system which commodifies hormones, pathologises gender non-conformity, and renders medical professionals gatekeepers of who can live in the truth of their gender. Extrapolating from this into the future fills me with trepidation, rather than hope. I choose instead to stand on Murray’s shoulders and focus on collectives of trans people with agency coordinating the non-hierarchical sharing of hormones and care. Or on communities that otherwise disrupt the logics of gender and sexuality, justice and desert, in new and outrageous ways that make future life less predictable but potentially more free.

This is work that people of all sexualities can do, not least because everyone benefits when no one is punished for being queer. This is also work I think Christians are called to do.

It’s exciting that our collective identity is shaped by a God that exists entirely outside our perception of time. It give us the impetus to think outside of linear narratives and imagine futures that are more than just the sum total of the past and present. Rather than use LGBT History Month as a way of foreclosing possibility – thinking about rights that weren’t in place before that are here now, meaning conversations about those rights and the freedoms they enable can be brought to an end – we can think speculatively and, with God’s help, introduce novelty into the making of queer history. We can imagine how we can gift the future with much more than we currently have.

This doesn’t mean we must all try and be Pauli Murrays (impossible!) or other well-known historical figures. As trans writer Jordy Rosenberg points out, we are acting in service of “[a] future that may never know our name or remember us personally”. Rosenberg describes this as “radical anonymity”. In anonymity, there’s a surrender of the self that reminds me of my primary identity as a child of God. This identity is rooted in a relationship that is not of this world, that in and of itself brings no prestige, and that creates responsibilities to those around me. As LGBT History Month draws to a close, I suggest that it be considered an opportunity for both celebration and speculation. A means of forging connection with those who will come after us as well as those who came before.

[1] From ‘Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray’, by Rosalind Rosenberg