Queering Iconography, Painting Pauli Murray by Angela Yarber

angelaEven as my book, Holy Women Icons, is printed, bound, and available for purchase, filled with the stories of nearly fifty holy women, my project of painting these beloved saints continues. Joining all my other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist is the brave, bold, and revolutionary Pauli Murray.

This month is a celebration of Murray’s life and witness is several meaningful ways. The first of July was her feast day, as she was deemed an Episcopal saint in 2012. LGBTQ author and activist, Kittredge Cherry, detailed Murray’s feast day, celebrating her as a “Human rights champion and queer saint…renowned civil rights pioneer, feminist, author, lawyer and the first black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest.” And the celebration of Pauli Murray’s radical witness continues as the icon bearing her image joins seventeen of my other Holy Women Icons at the North Star LGBTQ Center Gallery in Winston-Salem, NC for an exhibition entitled, “Queering Iconography: Holy Women Icons from Sappho to Pauli Murray.”

An array of women who lived in queer ways fill the pages of my book and the walls of North Star’s Gallery, their stories coming to life in the essays that accompany each icon. Whether it is artists, Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, dancer Isadora Duncan, or writer Virginia Woolf, all women who explored the spirit through their artistic work and loved men and women, or the hallmark poet for all of lesbianism—our beloved Sappho—queer women have lived and continue to live holy lives that are revolutionary, prophetic, and bold. Also filling the pages of Holy Women Icons and the walls of the Gallery are the queer feminist theological forerunners Mary Daly, author of revolutionary texts like Beyond God the Father and The Church and the Second Sex, and sensual biblical dancer from the Song of Songs, the Shulamite, whose lover was, indeed, a woman. Painting and writing about these queer holy women is one way of redeeming and reclaiming a faith and spirituality that is often taken from queer people in the name of “right religion.” Similarly, tremendous allies, such as Maya Angelou and Martha Graham also grace the pages of my book and the Gallery, dancing and reaching across my canvases in acts of grace and affirmation.

And the unconventional saints continue even as the book is bound. These queer women saints are joined by my newest icon, painted after the publication of Holy Women Icons: Pauli Murray. 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, even 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 transgender persons.

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 decided 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.

Pauli MurrayThroughout her career in civil rights and in the priesthood, Murray had loving, committed, and intimate relationships with women and struggled with her gender identity. Throughout the 20s and 30s she took hormone treatments as she described herself as a “man trapped in a woman’s body.” 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…

It is with great pride that she begins the tour of my Holy Women Icons at a center that seeks to provide a “safe, enriching, and accepting place for all LGBTQ people and allies.” From July through September, Murray will offer inspiration, affirmation, and empowerment to all those who enter the North Star LGBTQ Center Gallery. If you would like for Murray and my other revolutionary Holy Women Icons to tour your gallery, university, congregation, center, or seminary, please contact me for details. 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!

Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, and Holy Women Icons. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com

15 thoughts on “Queering Iconography, Painting Pauli Murray by Angela Yarber”

  1. Thanks for reminding us that Pauli Murray co-founded NOW. The widely repeated refrains about “a white women’s movement” deny her history and misrepresent the history of everyone.


  2. Hooray for “unconventional saints”! They’ve gotta be the best kind. Not old men with beards or stubborn, violated virgins.


  3. Whenever I look up some creative person I’m interested in at FAR, some post of yours always arises. Thank you so much for sharing your love of the great ones. I met Georgia O’Keeffe in my first job out of college, working as a registrar at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. She was quite elderly, and me so young, but it didn’t matter, we sat on a bench together in one of the galleries and talked on an on about cabbages and kings.


  4. Heterosexual Christian male whose ancestors came from Europe here who is a senior in more ways than one at George Mason University in Fairfax VA. There are several galleries on campus where your work could be shown, but I think you would have a greater impact at venues off campus. In particular I am thinking the Work House Arts Gallery in Lorton VA, http://workhousearts.org, and the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, http://www.smithcenter.org/arts-healing/joan-hisaoka-art-gallery.html, in Washington DC.


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