Episcopal Church

Queering Iconography: Painting Pauli Murray

by Rev . Dr. Angela Yarber

“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”

LGBTQ persons of faith know well the importance of seeing reflections of ourselves in the pulpit, pew, and podium. There is life-changing power in seeing a person who looks and loves like you affirmed, ordained, degreed. Because not all persons of faith are straight, white, cisgender men.

These sentiments sparked in me a resolve to create. 

As an ordained queer clergywoman, artist, and scholar of Art and Religion, I’ve spent many years immersed in a pantheon of male saints. Mostly white. Presumed straight. Certainly cis. They are the ones to whom countless individuals pray, in whom they believe, the supposed models for how to live a life of faith.

But these saints, these icons, don’t reflect the beautiful array of humanity. So, in 2009 I began a lifelong project of subverting the virtually all straight-male sainthood by creating Holy Woman Icons and giving traditional iconography folk feminist twist.

Over the next weeks, months, and years, I want to introduce you to some of these intrepid women, queer saints who have preached, prayed, danced, painted, taught, wrote, and revolutionized religion in the name of justice and equality, queer women and allies who have done these things so that we might, too. We need to see more of them, so I’m introducing you to these Holy Woman Icons, and highlighting lives and ministries that are too often overlooked in the life and history of the church.

Today we meet the revolutionary civil rights attorney, Episcopal priest, and model of intersectionality: Pauli Murray. 

As this summer brings to mind Pride celebrations, the importance of Black Lives Matter, and the ways in which society forgets and marginalizes trans people of color, Murray reminds us that all of these realities are not separate ways of being in the world, for she embodies them all in her bold, brave, subversive body. The first of July was her feast day, as she was deemed an Episcopal saint in 2012.

Pauli Murray was a queer woman who was raised Durham, NC by her aunt after her parents passed. She was a civil rights attorney, coining the phrase “Jane Crow” to acknowledge the role of sexism in addition to racism in Jim Crow laws. In her sixties she became the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest.

All the while she loved women, also claiming that if she could transition from Pauli to Paul, she would, thus providing hope and holiness, not only for women, lesbians, and African Americans, but also for people who are transgender (and those who occupy more than one of these identities).

Murray was ahead of her time in so many prophetic ways.

She graduated from Hunter College, intent on attending law school so that she could work for justice for black women. In 1938 she was rejected from UNC Chapel Hill’s law school because of her race and Harvard because of her gender. She even received a prestigious scholarship from Harvard when the admissions committee assumed that “Pauli” was a male name; upon discovering that Pauli was female, they revoked the scholarship and admission into the law school.

Undeterred, she enrolled in law school at UC Berkeley. Upon finishing, she published a book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, which was described by Thurgood Marshall as the bible for civil rights attorneys. She lost a teaching post at Cornell University because of the people who wrote her references, the legendary Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, and Philip Randolph, who were dubbed too radical by the university.

Yet Murray continued working for equality, jailed for organizing desegregation on public transportation years before Rosa Parks, in addition to planning sit-ins twenty years before the famous Woolworth’s protests in Greensboro. In 1965 she was the first black woman to earn a law doctorate at Yale. As a celebration, she co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW).

After challenging the status quo in law, Murray followed her calling to pursue the priesthood in her 60s. 

She began her studies at New York’s General Theological Seminary before the Episcopal Church permitted women to become priests. In 1977 she was ordained and presided at her first Eucharist at the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Chapel Hill, NC. It was the same church where her grandmother—then a slave—was baptized. Talk about a revolutionary!

Throughout her career in civil rights and in the priesthood, Murray had loving, committed, and intimate relationships with women and questioned her gender assignment and identity. Throughout the 1920s and 30s she took hormone treatments as she described herself as a “man trapped in a woman’s body,” though she continued to use “her” and “she” as pronouns.

Today Murray may have described herself as transgender or gender queer, though such language was not readily available to her during her lifetime. She lived and loved boldly, finding the magnanimous balance between humility and pride, and working tirelessly so that all may be treated equally.

As I painted her icon, I knew that her heart must be the largest of all, encompassing more of the canvas than her body. With a quiet resolve, she stands with her arms spread wide, embracing everyone, as her heart cries out to us:

When her throat grew weary,
Her heart pulsed a song
Of hope, of justice, of equality,
Unconstrained by the binaries
That bind,
Authentically free…

Murray reminds us of the power of intersectionality.

She emboldens us to stand for justice in the face of tremendous challenge. 

Her life serves as a beacon to those who think it’s too late to answer their calling. Because of Pauli Murray, together, we can create a world where all are honored, affirmed, celebrated, and treated with justice, equality, and beauty. Let’s create such a world!

Artwork created by Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber