[Episcopal News Service] In the new documentary “My Name Is Pauli Murray”, filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen paint the portrait of a little-known pioneer who remains relatively unknown despite her enduring influence on American society. Episcopalians know her as the first African-American woman to be ordained a priest and as a pioneer in struggles for racial and gender equality. But many may not be familiar with other important aspects of her life, such as her struggle to come to terms with her gender identity at a time long before transgender people were accepted into mainstream society.
When West and Cohen came across Murray’s story while working on their previous film (“RBG,” the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic), they wondered why such an important figure was not such a household name. .
“Why didn’t we know this person? “Was the first question everyone asked,” West told Episcopal News Service, “and is there something we can do?
The result, “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” premiered online in January at the Sundance Film Festival and is now showing in select theaters. The Washington National Cathedral will screen the documentary for an in-person audience on September 30. It will stream on Amazon Prime from October 1. It will also air online the same day via the Church of Heavenly Rest in New York City, followed by a chat with West and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. The film, which incorporates snippets from Murray’s diaries and memoirs, shows how she laid the groundwork for future achievements in racial and gender equality.
Murray is celebrated on July 1 in the Episcopal Church’s “holy women, holy men” calendar of saints, and a growing number of episcopal leaders – especially black and LGBTQ + people – cite her as an influence. Trinity Church Wall Street and the Diocese of North Carolina support partners at the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice at Murray’s childhood home in Durham, North Carolina.
Murray wasn’t intimidated by the fact that she was often the first and / or the only black woman in the positions she held. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to leave a white section on a bus, Murray and a friend did the same in Virginia, although their case did not gain momentum like the Parks did. During her legal career, she was among the first to argue the unconstitutionality of “separate but equal” laws, an argument cited 10 years later in Brown v. Board of Education by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who called his book on the laws of segregation “” the bible of the civil rights movement. Ginsburg used Murray’s arguments in a memoir she wrote – listing him as a co-author – while arguing Reed v. Reed, the 1971 Supreme Court case which banned sex discrimination based on the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Part of what makes Murray important today was his commitment to intersectionality: the idea that social justice movements for different groups should support each other rather than working alone. As a black woman discriminated against on the basis of both her race and gender – a situation she described as “Jane Crow” – Murray has supported civil rights and feminist movements. But intersectionality was not as common as it is today, and Murray’s penchant for crossing borders is one of the reasons she did not achieve greater fame, West said.
“The civil rights movement was not as open to recognizing the contributions of women as it should have been, and the women’s movement was sometimes dense enough to recognize the needs and contributions of African American women,” West told ENS. “Jane Crow’s concept is really intersectionalism. It’s a brilliant way of expressing the double bind that African American women find themselves in, and it was certainly true for Pauli.
Another factor was Murray’s sexuality and gender identity. In her diaries, Murray described having relationships with women but feeling that she was not a lesbian but a man living in a female body. This experience would now be classified as gender dysphoria and could have led Murray to live as a transgender man or a non-binary person, suggests the film. The film also examines which pronouns should be used to describe Murray, who used his pronouns to describe himself, although some now speculate that Murray would have preferred them or him / her. In any case, Murray didn’t have those options in the middle of the 20th century.
“The difficulty of living a somewhat secret life – the problem of feeling so strong about having a male identity in what everyone says is a female body and not being able to express it – besides having this who would be considered lesbian relationships at a time when that wasn’t accepted either – it may have caused Pauli to be a little less ahead in her leadership roles, ”West speculates.“ It didn’t. certainly not stopped Pauli from speaking out, from having contact with a lot of very powerful and important people, but Pauli did not stay to take credit for a lot of ideas. “
The Episcopal Church is one place, West said, where Murray has received due recognition.
“A lot of people say, ‘Why haven’t I heard of Pauli Murray? “There are a lot of Episcopalians who know Pauli Murray,” West told ENS. “The church was a place that raised the name of Pauli.”
– Egan Millard is associate editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.