Tag Archives: gender nonbinary

Her Name Was Pauli Murray

Debbie says:

I wrote a blog post about Pauli Murray in 2019. This weekend, I had the opportunity to see the new documentary about her, My Name is Pauli Murray, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, the team who directed RBG. The film was screened as part of the virtual 2021 Sundance Festival. I can’t find a current trailer or website for this film, though there are some reviews and articles.

I agree with Jude Dry, writing in IndieWire, when they say “While the film doesn’t transcend cinematic heights beyond that of a workaday biopic, it handles the more complex aspects of Murray’s story with nuance and conveys the Black queer trailblazer’s story with requisite reverence.”

Selecting a pronoun to use for Murray is difficult, as some of the people interviewed the film point out. Murray (1910-1985) didn’t live in a time when “they/them” was in any kind of common usage, but it seems like the best choice for someone assigned female at birth who never was able to settle into a female body, and spent decades and thousands of dollars trying to find evidence that they might have undescended testicles or other assigned-male characteristics.

Murray’s life story is extraordinarily complex and layered. Perhaps best known (though nowhere near well enough) is Murray the civil-rights trailblazer. The film begins this story by covering their first experience refusing to move to the back of the bus (a decade before Rosa Parks’ famous moment) and subsequent jail stay.

After providing a stunning split-screen image of Black children leaving a run-down unmaintained school, and morphing into an image of White children leaving a cheerful, affluent school, the film-makers bring in Murray’s law-school paper opposing Plessy v. Ferguson (the notorious Supreme Court case upholding “separate but equal”). They draw an unambiguous line between that paper and the eventual arguments Thurgood Marshall and his team used, to overturn Plessy and replace it with Brown vs. Board of Education, which mandates integration. Spottswood Robinson, Murray’s professor at Howard and a member of the Marshall team, told Murray that they had used her legal theories in crafting their brief.

Of course, the movie covers Murray’s mentorship of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, including a brief moment of RBG herself singing the praises of Pauli Murray. It also spends time on Murray’s quite deep and lasting friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, which grew from Murray’s letters to President Franklin Roosevelt asking probing questions about Black rights, or the lack thereof.

Rather than center itself on racial issues and legal triumphs, the film spends perhaps an equal amount of time on Murray’s gender identity and presentation, and features a number of contemporary nonbinary voices, along with Murray’s own words in letters and other writings. The film-makers go to appropriately great lengths to clarify just how important gender was to Murray, and how valuable that part of their story is to people who have later carved their own path into a gender role and presentation they can be comfortable with.

Scenes in Professor Britney Cooper’s classroom at Rutgers are one device the directors use to context Murray’s importance in Black history. As Cooper teaches Murray’s accomplishments, we are reminded that while they certainly did not comfortably identify as female, they faced all of the obstacles and oppressions of being a Black female in their time, and what that meant to entering the professional legal world. Murray was turned down by law schools because of their race. They went to Howard University, and graduated at the top of their class. Then they were turned down from what was usually an automatic chance for top-rank Howard students to study further at Harvard Law … because of “her” sex.

Their attempts to get a law firm job after graduation prefigure those of Ginsburg and her classmates a few years later; Murray, without the connections and/or husbands of the Harvard women, opened their own law firm in California.

We are given a window into the stories of Murray’s major relationships with women, and a searing vision into the pain Murray experienced when their lover died. And we also get a later chapter of Murray’s life, when they became an Episcopal priest and explored yet another aspect of themself, astonishing many of their friends.

When I wrote about Murray two years ago, I closed with “I find it impossible to think about Murray without wishing I had known her.” That’s even more true since I saw the movie

Follow Debbie on Twitter.

Follow Laurie’s new Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.

Asia Kate Dillon: Representation Saves Lives


Debbie says:

Representation of any marginalized group makes a huge difference in public awareness, acceptance, and expectations. When a marginalized group has effectively unrecognized even as existing, the first major representation is especially exciting. So we are delighted to welcome Taylor, quite possibly the first gender-nonbinary character on a major television show.

Taylor, who started on the show at the beginning of this season, is an intern on Showtime’s Billions, a world-of-hedge-funds-drama. Taylor is played by gender-nonbinary actor Asia Kate Dillon.

When we think back to able-bodied Daniel Day Lewis playing a permanently disabled character in My Left Foot, female-identified Felicity Huffman playing a trans woman in Transamerica, and female-identified Hilary Swank playing a trans man in Boys Don’t Cry (to name just a few of dozens), the fact that Dillon and Taylor are matched in their marginalized status is laudable.  But apparently, the show runners weren’t committed to doing this right. Lauren C. Williams of Think Progress spoke with Dillon and the creators of the show:


Show runners Brian Koppelman and David Levien said they want to avoid being “preachy” when it comes to the issues raised in the show. But in creating a non-binary character, they hoped Billions could have an opportunity to push viewers out of their comfort zones.

“We don’t make these broad social statements on the show, we allow the viewer to make them for themselves,” Koppelman said. “But by introducing a character like this, we figured we would start a kind of conversation that would be useful to have.”

When Billions went to cast Taylor in 2016, the writers didn’t require the actors auditioning for the role to identify as non-binary themselves. But Levien said that Dillon landing the part was a “stroke of serendipity.”

Come on, guys, you couldn’t just have committed to your values? You couldn’t have done a preliminary search for a gender-nonbinary actor and only fallen back on a gendered actor if that search fails? No, you had to have “serendipity” help you along. But hey, it worked out this time.

Dillon said their own experience as non-binary helps them relate to the character’s sense of self-perception.

“Anyone who has gone on a journey of self-discovery with specific regard to either their gender identity or their sexual orientation, I think has had to look at themselves from sort of every angle,” Dillon said. “And Taylor has certainly done that…Taylor has a clear understanding of who they are.” …

“Just simply by Taylor being there, the conversation around pronouns and or gender identity just starts happening,” Dillon said. “So in that sense, anywhere that Taylor goes, they are going to be an agent for change and conversation simply by them being there.”

In one scene, Taylor confidently announces their pronouns before pitching a potentially lucrative short — which is something Taylor does over and over again as the season progresses.

Pronoun identification on TV: again, it should be normal and not ground-breaking, but the only way things get to be normal is if they are first ground-breaking.  Williams’ article goes on to discuss the role of pronoun identification among young people, and she closes with this powerful statement from Dillon about why representation is essential.

“Whether it’s a young person, or a person of any age, who is struggling in some way because their identity or their sexual orientation, or whatever [their struggle] may be, may not be reflected to them in their immediate community. Then they go to the movies and on the screen they suddenly see someone that is a reflection of them,” Dillon said. “And just that acknowledgement of feeling like you’re not alone, like you’re being seen, is really powerful. It saves lives.”

Making the invisible visible. We can’t live without it.