“I intend to do my part through the power of persuasion, by spiritual resistance, by the power of my pen, and by inviting the violence upon my own body. For what is life itself without the freedom to walk proudly before God and (hu)mans and to glorify creation through the genius of self-expression? I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all (hu)mankind.”
–Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray
Pauli Murray’s words have been significant throughout the 20th century and beyond. For quick context, her words shaped the historic influence of notable political figures including Eleanor Roosevelt, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Thurgood Marshall.
It feels appropriate to reference the words from a human rights pioneer who grew up in North Carolina when considering the harmful, exclusive legislation recently brought forth in our state’s General Assembly. In case you missed it, on March 23, the fifth anniversary of the infamous House Bill 2, our state’s public servants introduced legislation that targets trans youth in sports.
I have to be honest, though. Especially after all of the suffering this last year, Pauli’s words, at face value, are hard to swallow. I am a young, Black, genderqueer (hu)man living in North Carolina, doing my best to survive a pandemic—I am not trying to invite violence upon my own body.
Life was already violent enough before COVID-19, especially for LGBTQ+ folks. Data collected across the country showed that we were more likely than cisgender heterosexual people to experience sexual assault. Back in 2015, research verified that transgender people were disproportionately experiencing homelessness, unemployment, harassment, psychological distress, suicidality, and more. And even in 2020, during the pandemic, transgender and gender non-conforming people were still being murdered at alarming rates, with trans women of color comprising the majority of the victims.
COVID-19 has almost certainly exacerbated these problems, making life seem like an open buffet of collective suffering when our plates were already full. Each particular kind of violence directed at LGBTQ+ folks, whether physical or psychic, is real and persistent; it has not let up at all.
With this in mind, it makes me wonder about the introduction of this possible new legislation: what do we really achieve by excluding children, preventing them from participating fully in our communities? Have we all not suffered enough? Do we not deserve better?
And let’s be clear: we deserve better, especially LGBTQ+ people.
LGBTQ+ people suffer disproportionately, not because we are inherently inferior but because others are treating us as if we are inferior when we are not. People, particularly those with institutional power, exclude and marginalize us, deny our rights and protections, and regard these dehumanizing behaviors as normal and justified, as if we deserve it when we deserve better. We all deserve better.
This is why Pauli Murray’s words still manage to resonate, despite the counterintuitive invitation of violence. I think Pauli was somehow willing to invite violence upon herself because she knew she deserved better and recognized the inevitable pain she would encounter in order to birth her visions of community into existence and to bring her noble endeavors from imagination to fruition.
Pauli’s endeavor to draw a larger circle, including the very ones who would exclude her, is a noteworthy challenge to create something we all deserve, to commit to honor our shared personhood, to construct policies and practices that are more creative, inclusive, and humanizing.
When I imagine humanizing legislation that draws a larger circle, that makes space for both LGBTQ+ people and those who seek to exclude and marginalize us, it demands that we all consider what it would take to cultivate real trust and honesty and empathy and accountability and boundaries. In that larger circle, we must face our common reality that we are connected to one another, even when our actions suggest otherwise. In that larger circle, we must accept that we cause suffering when we avoid it at all costs, that there is no promise of absolute safety for anyone, and that we will mess up and cause harm along the way, even with the best intentions.
Drawing a larger circle doesn’t mean we minimize or glamorize the violence that persists, welcoming it with enthusiasm. Rather, it means we strive to greet it with revolutionary love, creative energy, and courageous fortitude. It means we wrestle against painful principalities, seeking to transform the legacies of violence we have inherited into something better that we all deserve. It means we stop dehumanizing each other and we stretch our capacities to imagine a better North Carolina.
We can imagine a better North Carolina, one where HB 2 is fully repealed for good, one where conversion therapy for youth is banned.
We can imagine a better North Carolina, one where LGBTQ+ people can find housing, work, healthcare, therapy, education, and recreational sports without fear of discrimination, one where LGBTQ+ parents and caregivers don’t have to jump through hoops to ensure their children are legally considered theirs.
And, y’all, we can imagine a better North Carolina, one that we create together where LGBTQ+ people not only survive but flourish, one that we all deserve where wholeness is a human right for all of us instead of a privilege for a few of us.
Instead of returning hate with hate, reacting to violent anti-LGBTQ+ statements with more dehumanizing violence, I join with Pauli and amplify her words. I invite our state’s legislators to use their political influence and institutional power to draw a larger circle, to commit to rejecting all anti-LGBTQ+ policies that bring needless suffering, and to introduce and pass creative, inclusive, and humanizing legislation that wholly affirms our shared personhood and cultivates protections and equity for LGBTQ+ people.
That is the North Carolina we all deserve.
Jesse Huddleston is a board member at the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham.
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