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The friendship between a first lady and a ‘Firebrand’

Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt bonded during civil rights movement

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Pauli Murray, gay news, Washington Blade
Pauli Murray, gay news, Washington Blade

Patricia Bell-Scott explores the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray in her new book.

Most of us would be proud to have earned a degree, written an acclaimed book of poetry or memoir, worked tirelessly for civil rights and have been part of a friendship that fostered human rights.

Pauli Murray, the groundbreaking African-American activist, lawyer, writer and priest, who lived from 1910-1985 and was attracted to women, did all this and much more. For nearly 25 years, Murray the granddaughter of a mixed-race slave, was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose privileged background entitled her to belong to the Daughters of the American Revolution. (Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in 1939 when the group prohibited the renowned African-American singer Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.)

In her compelling new book “The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice,” Patricia Bell-Scott, editor of the anthology “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave,” tells the story of this extraordinary relationship. Bell-Scott is professor emerita of women’s studies and human development and family science at the University of Georgia. Her previous books include: “Life Notes: Personal Writings by Contemporary Black Women” and “Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers and Daughters,” which won the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize.

From 1938-1962, their friendship was sustained by some 300 postcards and letters as well as personal visits. The relationship began when Murray, 27, working for the WPA, a New Deal agency, sent Eleanor Roosevelt a letter protesting a speech Franklin Delano Roosevelt had made at the University of North Carolina. (The university had refused to admit Murray as a student because she was black.) The friendship continued until Roosevelt, 26 years older than Murray, died in 1962.

Murray earned three law degrees, organized sit-ins in the 1940s while a student at Howard University against eateries that discriminated against people of color, participated in bus boycotts 15 years before Rosa Parks and created the legal strategy that ensured that sex discrimination was included in the Civil Rights Act.     

A co-founder of the National Organization for Women, Murray wrote the memoir “Proud Shoes,” the well-regarded poetry collection “Dark Testament” as well as numerous essays and books. In 1977, she became one of the first women to be ordained as a priest by the Episcopal Church. Though Murray hadn’t been involved in writing it, in 1971 Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in an homage to Murray’s work, listed her as a co-author in her first brief before the Supreme Court.

Born in Baltimore, Murray didn’t use her given name “Anna Pauline.” Her father was a teacher and her mother was a nurse. At age three, after her mother died, Murray went to Durham, N.C., where she lived with her grandparents and two of her aunts, one of whom became her adoptive mother. In her childhood, Murray’s father, after contracting what was thought to be encephalitis, suffered from “unpredictable attacks of depression and violent moods.” Murray wasn’t ashamed of her sexual orientation and was in a long-term relationship with Irene, “Renee” Barlow. Yet, because of homophobia and her race, she was often denied employment in the government and the private sector.

It’s no wonder that it took Bell-Scott 20 years to write “Firebrand.” Recently, she talked with the Blade about the book and the friendship between Murray and the woman, who Murray called “Mrs. R.”

“This was not something I intended to do,” Bell-Scott said of “Firebrand.” “I was working on another project at the time.”

Then in 1983, Bell-Scott asked Murray to serve as a consulting editor to “SAGE: A Scholarly Journal of Black Women,” of which she was a co-founding editor. Though Murray couldn’t do SAGE, she wrote a letter of “encouragement” to Bell-Scott. “Pauli wanted to work on her autobiography,” she said.

In a follow-up to this letter, Murray wrote to Bell-Scott, “You need to know some of the veterans of the battle whose shoulders you now stand on.”

She didn’t say, “know me better,” Bell-Scott said, “but she did say she took great pride in her work as a member of the subcommittee on legal rights of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. (President John F. Kennedy appointed Eleanor Roosevelt chair of the commission.)

Bell-Scott made notes of what she wanted to talk about with Murray when her writing project was finished. “But I didn’t get the chance —18 months later, she died of pancreatic cancer,” she said. “Her letter haunted me. Quite a few years later, I decided I was still so haunted by her comment about knowing the veterans on whose shoulders you’re standing on.”

After examining the collection of Murray’s letters at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University and the collection of Roosevelt’s letters at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Bell-Scott said, she “immediately recognized that their relationship deserved attention.” Their friendship is mentioned only briefly by historians and biographers.

Despite the fact that Murray and Roosevelt came from very different backgrounds, they had a lot in common, Bell-Scott said. “To begin with, Anna was the given name for both of them and they never used it,” she said. “They both lost their parents before their teens and were sent to live with elderly kin.”

They were sensitive kids who grew up to be compassionate women with a thirst for justice, Bell-Scott said. “Even though she was first lady, people made fun of Eleanor’s appearance and ridiculed her teeth,” she added. “Pauli was boyish looking. People poked fun at how she looked.”

Murray and Roosevelt loved their fathers who suffered from mood disorders and alcoholism respectively. Though they were outspoken and highly energetic in their quest for social justice, “people were often surprised to learn that Pauli and Eleanor were both shy,” Bell-Scott said. “It took them tremendous psychic energy to overcome their shyness.”

Both were voracious readers and avid writers. Though she was a committed social justice activist, lawyer and priest, writing was what was closest to Murray’s heart, Bell-Scott said.  “Pauli couldn’t turn away from activism,” she said, “but if there were any regrets – she would have liked to have written more.”

Roosevelt, too, was committed to her writing, Bell-Scott said. “Eleanor wrote her ‘My Day’ column even when she was first lady,” she said. “After FDR’s death, she reported on Russia and pursued other writing projects.”

Their sense of well being was dependent on having meaningful work and exercise, Bell-Scott said. “They had a talent for friendship. And they loved dogs. Eleanor liked Scotties and Pauli liked mutts and strays.”

Murray would work herself into exhaustion and crash, Bell-Scott said. “She suffered from mood swings which weren’t properly diagnosed as a thyroid disorder until Pauli was in her 40s,” she said. “Eleanor suffered episodes of depression.”

Their friendship was the context that allowed Murray and Roosevelt to grow into the “transformative leaders that we know them as,” Bell-Scott said. “When they first met, Pauli was an impatient young radical … Eleanor felt it was important to always consider taking social justice action with great caution – to always follow the muted action on civil rights of the Roosevelt administration.” (FDR never publicly pushed Congress to speak out against lynching, Bell-Scott said.)

Later in their lives, Bell-Scott said, Murray had moved from radical left to left of center – voting for Lyndon Johnson as a registered Democrat after decades of voting for Socialist candidates. By the 1960s, Roosevelt had put her life on the line at civil rights workshops and demonstrations.

“When I look at the issue of Pauli’s sexuality, I think of the social context of the time. Here is a woman coming to adulthood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s,” she said. “Homosexuality is defined as a mental disorder until the 1970s. Pauli, a very bright woman, reads the scientific literature.”

Added to this, Bell-Scott said, was the homophobia of McCarthyism, which considered LGBT people to be a security threat. “Pauli was a black woman lawyer,” she said, “ that’s an unconventional career for a woman. There are rumors about her sexuality and her mental health.  She is living with discrimination on so many fronts.”

But Murray wasn’t ashamed of who she was, Bell-Scott said. “She was raised as a child by elder kin with Victorian values. You didn’t talk about sexuality.”

From reading Murray’s letters and sermons from later in her life, “it seems to me that Pauli began to publicly embrace herself,” Bell-Scott said.

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Books

‘Fiona and Jane’ an enticing look at lifelong friendship

Two women bicker, fall distant – then meet again

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(Book cover image courtesy of Viking)

‘Fiona and Jane’
By Jean Chen Ho
c. 2022, Viking
$26/275 pages

“Fiona and Jane,” a new short story collection by Jean Chen Ho is an enticing New Year’s present. The captivating volume features secrets, family conflict, queerness, astute cultural observations, and above all, friendship.

We long to fall in love. So we lose our hearts to our lovers and go to pieces when our relationships break up.

Yet, especially, if we’re women and/or queer, we want a best friend as much, maybe more, than we do a lover.

Fiona and Jane, Asian Americans, grew up in Los Angeles. They’ve been best friends since they met in LA in second grade. Jane’s family emigrated to Los Angeles from Taiwan. Fiona, with her mother, came to LA from Taiwan when she was a young child.

In “Fiona and Jane,” Ho’s debut collection, the two friends over 30 years grow from second-graders to 30-somethings. Ho’s linked stories draw us into Fiona and Jane’s friendship as they become, at different times, incredibly close, then distant (both geographically and emotionally) from each other.

Ho, 41, has more writing chops than you can imagine. She is a doctoral candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Southern California where she is a Dornsife Fellow in fiction. Ho has an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her writing has been published in The Georgia Review, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, McSweeney’s, and other publications.

Ho was born in Taiwan, grew up in Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. But, “none of the things that happen to Fiona and Jane are autobiographical,” she said on the podcast “All of It with Alison Stewart,” “I didn’t mine my particular life experiences and put them in the book out of respect to my oldest and dearest friends.”

Fiona is hetero, smart  and attractive. As a teen, she earns enough money to buy a secondhand car (named Shamu, Ho writes, “after the Sea World killer whale because of the corroding white patches all over the black paint.”).

While Fiona’s mother isn’t religious, Jane’s Mom is devoutly Christian. Jane is bisexual. When she and Fiona are teens, they kiss  “to practice” – what kissing’s like. Though she doesn’t tell her Mom, Jane, when a teenager, has a romantic relationship with her female piano teacher.

When she’s young, Jane often does what Fiona does. Because Jane’s tall, she’s often thought of as “Fiona’s bodyguard.” As she grows older, Jane begins to rely more on herself.

Fiona is eager to leave LA. She goes to college, then moves to New York City with her first boyfriend. She enters law school, then drops out.

Jane stays in Los Angeles. She opts to take a gap year between high school and college. The gap year morphs into a couple of years. Jane has relationships with women as well as with Julian, a vet who has PTSD.

Though Fiona and Jane are quite different from one another, they keep circling back to each other. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common: they both have lost their fathers.

In one of the collection’s most moving stories, “The Night Market,” Jane speaks of her visit before she graduated high school to Taiwan where she has come to see her Dad. Her Dad has gone from LA to Taiwan for a temporary job. Jane learns that he’s going to stay in Taiwan because he’s fallen in love with a man there. Her Dad asks her to keep this a secret. But, in her pain at his revelation, she outs him. Jane blames herself for his suicide.

Fiona discovers as a child that she’s never known her father. Her mother raises her on her own.

Over the years, Fiona and Jane bicker, fall distant – then meet again. As teens, they help each other get fake IDs so they can drink. As adults, they help each other through moving apartments, love affairs and mourning.

 “Sixteen years since my father died, and I was still alive,” Jane thinks, “I got up, every morning. I lived, day by day. I had my best friend, Fiona Lin.”

Check out “Fiona and Jane.” Then, text your best friend.

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Books

Seeking love and community in Nicaragua

‘High-Risk Homosexual’ explores author’s youth, coming out

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(Book cover image courtesy of Soft Skill Press)

High-Risk Homosexual: A Memoir
By Edgar Gomez
c.2022, Soft Skull Press
$16.95/304 pages

Here. Try this.

It fits you, but the color isn’t flattering. It’s too long, too short, too tight, too loose. That’s not your style, so try something else until you find the thing that looks like you. The perfect thing is out there. As in the new book “High-Risk Homosexual” by Edgar Gomez, when something’s right, it’s right.

He was 13 when he figured out that he was a problem to be solved.

Edgar Gomez’ mother had left him in her native Nicaragua with his tíos, just for a while because she had to return to Florida to work. He wasn’t there without her for long, but it took years for him to understand that his time with his uncles was meant to make him more masculine.

In retrospect, he says, nobody wanted him to be a man more than he did. He wanted to be liked by other kids and so he told lies in school to make himself stand out. He wanted his mother to see his love of pretty things and say that it was OK. He wanted his brother to acknowledge that Gomez was gay, and to tell him that he loved him.

Instead, after his brother left for college, Gomez got his first boyfriend, a boy he came out to but who couldn’t come out to himself. He was called names in school. He came out to his mother, who freaked out about it. He befriended a drag queen, but “Princess” used him.

Things he wanted: a real boyfriend. Love. A ban on the stereotype of a macho Latinx man.

Things he still had, while in college: his mother and older brother. A tormentor-turned-mentor. A part-time job. His weirdness. His virginity.

Things he wanted to lose, while in college: his room at his mother’s house. His virginity, but that wouldn’t happen until later, during a painful one-afternoon-stand with a hot man who said he had a girlfriend. That hurt, both physically and emotionally but like so many things at so many times, Gomez tried not to think about it.

If he never considered what he didn’t have, he says, “I wouldn’t miss it.”

In a way, you could say that “High-Risk Homosexual” is a book in search of a point. It’s really quite random and told (mostly) linearly, but not quite. It has its peaks, but also low valleys. And you won’t care about any of this, because you’ll be enjoying every bit of it.

Yeah, this memoir is good: author Edgar Gomez’s literary wandering makes it feel much like an honest conversation with readers. There are wince-worthy moments that allow empathy here, and experiences that are unique but oddly ubiquitous, that leave space for a sense of sympatico. There are passages that are so wistfully uncomfortable that you might squirm, or start “snort-laughing,” or want to stop a moment and just think.

And there’s room for that, too, so take your time. “High-Risk Homosexual” is an affable book with just enough seriousness to make it worth a try.

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Books

A lesbian Baby Boomer’s relatable story

‘Audacity of a Kiss’ a warm, familiar biography

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The Audacity of a Kiss: A Memoir
By Leslie Cohen
c.2021, Rutgers University Press
$24.95/235 pages

Don’t move.

Stay entirely still, don’t even breathe. You’re about to become a symbol of something that’s bigger than you are, something you’ll be proud of for the rest of your days. Don’t flinch, scratch, or sneeze, just don’t do anything. Don’t. Move. Unless it’s to turn the pages of “The Audacity of a Kiss” by Leslie Cohen.

Behind every statue is a story, and the one behind those representing four people in Christopher Park in New York’s Greenwich Village is no different. But to explain how this monument came about means also telling a long love story and a tale about a nightclub.

Leslie Cohen’s mother was her very best friend, although there were misunderstandings in the relationship. Seven-year-old Leslie couldn’t see why she received pink girly things for her birthday. In later years, she couldn’t understand why her mother deferred to Leslie’s father and endured his abuse.

The one thing Cohen did understand was that once puberty hit, the boys in her neighborhood were no longer pals to roughhouse with. She was supposed to want to date them and it didn’t entirely make sense, but Cohen went along with it even after she left home for college. She went out with boys and lost her virginity to one, but meeting Beth was the most remarkable thing about higher learning. She was sure she was in love with Beth, but Beth was obsessed with a boy and so Cohen moved on.

She moved on to other men and then women, at a time when women loving women was unthinkable, and the Summer of Love. Cohen embraced her lesbianism, fell in and out of love, and went into a partnership with three other women to open New York’s first lesbian club, where lesbians and straight feminists were welcome to dance and drink.

To be sure, it was a heady time. Cohen worked nonstop, gained confidence and learned to run a bar business. She was busy, but happy.

And then Beth came back into her life.

Let’s face it: author Leslie Cohen’s life story is basically like that of a lot of lesbians born at the beginning of the Baby Boom. A solid childhood, confusion, self-awareness, entrepreneurship all make a somewhat familiar story set apart by one abundant thing: warmth.

Indeed, “The Audacity of a Kiss” is an easy tale. It’s comfortable, like a crackling fireplace and a glass of wine on a cushy sofa.There are accomplishments here, told so that you really share the pride in them. Readers are shown the struggle that Cohen had, too, but experiences are well-framed by explanations of the times in which they occurred, with nothing overly dramatic – just the unabashed truth, and more warmth. Opening this book, in a way, then, is like accepting an invitation to own the recliner for an evening, and you won’t want anything else.

Younger lesbians will get a lot from this book, but anyone who’s been there will relish it. Get “The Audacity of a Kiss,” then sit down and don’t move.

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