A trailblazer for racial justice, women’s equality, and gender expression, Pauli Murray gets long-overdue recognition in the new Amazon Studios documentary My Name Is Pauli Murray from RBG directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West.
An early graduate of Howard University School of Law, Murray attended theology school decades later and became the first Black female-presenting person to be ordained a minister in the Episcopal Church (just one of many firsts they accomplished in their lifetime). Along Murray’s journey, they formed a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, helped found the Congress of Racial Equality and the National Organization for Women, and inspired Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her career.
Told through archival footage, talking-head interviews, and readings from Murray’s seminal works, the documentary shines a light on one of the 20th century’s most influential activists and scholars. The film shows how Murray’s ideas and writings helped create a framework for legal success from the civil rights movement to marriage equality.
Though Murray used she/her pronouns in their lifetime, queer academics today largely agree that Murray would likely identify under a nonbinary umbrella. And the film — in addition to highlighting Murray’s myriad accomplishments and actions, like a 1940 arrest in Richmond, Va., for refusing to sit at the back of the bus — fleshes out those pieces of Murray’s gender expression. For example, the documentary shows a series of vintage snapshots of a trousers-clad Murray, which Murray had labeled with gender-defying terms like “The Dude,” “The Vagabond,” “The Acrobat,” “The Crusader,” and “The Imp.” In the film, Murray scholars including Dolores Chandler and Brittney Cooper attest to Murray’s radical (for the time) gender expression. At one point, it’s explained that Murray sought out gender-affirming hormone therapy decades before those options were more widely available.
No single 90-minute film could fully tell Murray’s extraordinary story. But My Name Is Pauli Murray, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is an essential primer about the 20th-century figure Ginsburg admiringly referred to as “feisty.”
This feature story is part of Out's 2021 Design issue, which is out on newsstands October 5, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.