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Their name was Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray at 21 - courtesy Amazon Studios
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Pauli Murray circa 1931, age 21

This third week of LGBTQ History Month, Out in the Bay explores the life and accomplishments of a Black, queer civil rights pioneer left out of history books: Pauli Murray. (Airs 5 pm Friday on KALW)

Activist, lawyer, poet and priest, Dr. Anna Pauline Murray lived a life of firsts. Yet their extraordinary achievements remained largely unknown, a historical omission filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West sought to correct with their Amazon Original Documentary, “My Name is Pauli Murray.”

Called “ahead of their time” in many arenas, Murray’s legal writings are credited with laying the foundation for Brown v. Board of Education – the 1954 US Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools – and other landmark civil rights cases, including 2020’s US Supreme Court decision extending protections in the 1964 Civil Rights Act to LGBTQ employees. This ruling, 35 years after Murray’s death, made it illegal to fire anyone for sexual orientation or gender identity in all 50 US states.

Despite their contributions to gender equality, Murray had a life-long struggle with gender identity. As a child in the 1910s, young Pauli and supportive Aunt Pauline had a deal: Pauli could wear pants all week but had to wear a dress on Sundays for church.

Later in life, doctors were dismissive when Pauli sought, for example, testosterone many decades before it was seen as a viable treatment. Pauli’s self-description in a note to one doctor: “One of nature’s experiments: A girl who should have been a boy.”

Hear more about Pauli Murray’s remarkable life from our Out in the Bay guests: Julie Cohen, co-director of My Name is Pauli Murray and of RBG, the 2018 Oscar-nominated documentary about the late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Dolores Chandler, former coordinator at the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham, North Carolina, who appears in the film.

You’ll also hear directly from Murray in their own voice, as Murray recorded many hours of film and audio – and saved boxes and boxes of written documents – about themself and their life, leaving behind a documentarian’s dream treasure trove. Much of that footage is in My Name is Pauli Murray and some is also in this week’s Out in the Bay. The film streams on Amazon Prime Video.

Please help us keep bringing queer air to your ears. Out in the Bay is an independent non-profit production. Your gift will help keep LGBTQ voices and stories coming to you and others who might not be able to give. (Donate tabs on our website will take you to a Media Alliance interface. Media Alliance is our non-proft 501(c)3 fiscal agent. Your gift will be earmarked for Out in the Bay.)

This episode was produced by Kendra Klang and edited by Christopher Beale.

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Eric Jansen is a long-time broadcaster and print journalist. A former news anchor, producer and reporter at KQED FM, San Francisco; KLIV AM, San Jose; and Minnesota Public Radio, Eric's award-winning reports have been heard on many NPR programs and PRI's Marketplace. His print work has been in The Mercury News, The Business Journal, and LGBTQ magazines Genre and The Advocate, among other publications. He co-produced the June 2007 PBS documentary Why We Sing!, about LGBTQ choruses and their role in the civil rights fight.