Jennifer Murry-Rodley and Vanessa Rodley

Jennifer Murry-Rodley (left) and Vanessa Rodley (right)

for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Jennifer Murry-Rodley and Vanessa Rodley

Who doesn’t love a parade? Vanessa Rodley and wife Jennifer Murry-Rodley certainly do! They watched from the sidewalk at their first Pride parade in Memphis. Then in 2010 they became volunteers. In 2023, with Vanessa as President of Memphis Pride and Jennifer as Vice-President, Pride events reached over 63,000 people, the largest attendance ever in the Mid-South.

This year’s Women of Achievement Courage Award is not for putting on a parade but rather for taking part in an uphill struggle, to be fought on two fronts, against the well-organized forces of hate and intolerance.

Ask yourself this question: Does it require more courage to express who you are on a public street, knowing that in the crowd are those who threaten you and everyone like you? Or to be a witness, to stand up for your right to speak freely and openly? We say both take equal amounts of courage.

First, their story: Vanessa, California born and raised, met Jennifer, a native Memphian, in 2001 when Vanessa moved to Memphis with a friend. In early 2002, they became a committed couple, a date they still celebrate. They soon moved to Los Angeles to be near Vanessa’s family. In 2007 they returned to Memphis, where they now live in Cooper-Young, near Jennifer’s childhood home.

Did I mention they were married in 2014?

They have much in common. Both grew up in homes where advocacy was expected. Vanessa’s grandparents, especially her grandmother, raised funds and sat on community boards. In Cooper-Young, Jennifer’s two moms were active in the PTA and with Girl Scouts.

Jennifer and Vanessa became active in Friends of George’s, a theatre company named after the beloved Memphis drag bar. As Mid-South Pride volunteers, they raised money and good will by serving plates of food and jello shots at local bars such as Dru’s and the Pumping Station.

When Pride established a board in 2012, Vanessa became Vice-President and Jennifer became Secretary. Pride, and the parade, thrived, But being out in Memphis attracts attention. From the beginning, threats were always in the air, but when the parade moved Downtown and attendance tripled, the threats escalated. Both remember 2019 especially; The Proud Boys, The Black Israelites, The Aryan Nation, and others openly hostile to the LGBTQ+ community. The Club Q mass shootings in Colorado in 2022 brought a whole new level of fear and anxiety.

Here’s what you don’t see but is behind the scenes at a Pride parade:

Security teams on high alert before and after Pride. Volunteers walking through the parade route, discussing what to do in worst-case scenarios. Check-ins throughout the day to make sure everyone is okay.

But what do you do when those who hate and fear you don’t hide in the shadows of the internet or anonymously in a crowd? In early 2023, Governor Bill Lee signed into law the Adult Entertainment Act as passed by the Tennessee Legislature. The intent was to make drag shows illegal. Friends of George’s (FOG) challenged the law and Jennifer became the face of that challenge.

Those defending the law deposed one witness: Jennifer. She recalls the questions were not about how she viewed her rights under the Constitution, but were crudely suggestive, invasive questions about her sexuality. She recalls the advice she was given; take a deep breath and a sip of water then be a witness for what is right.

Trump-appointed Federal Judge Thomas Parker overturned the law, saying: “Freedom of speech is not just about speech. It is also about the right to debate with fellow citizens on self-government, to discover the truth in the marketplace of ideas, to express one’s identity, and to realize self-fulfillment in a free society.” 

But with the victory came national attention; from Rolling Stone Magazine, TMZ, The New York Times, MSNBC. And there was a price. Jennifer was celebrated for leading the fight. And targeted, through social media. Their home address was revealed. Threatening letters arrived. Cameras were installed and for a time security vehicles were parked in the driveway. Yet they continued.

Besides their commitment to the LGBTQ community, both women have day jobs. Vanessa is operations manager for New Urban Media while Jennifer is a neo-natal ICU nurse at Baptist Women’s Hospital. They hope, In the future, to have children.

Early in their lives, Vanessa and Jennifer each learned to speak up. They have faced threats made in person, by mail and on social media. Yet they continue to courageously speak out for fairness, justice and human rights. And for that we honor them.