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Stateswoman Barbara Jordan - A Closeted Lesbian


by David Bianco


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  • In her brief political career, Barbara Jordan repeatedly made history as an African-American woman. After her death in 1996, she made history one last time - not for her race or gender, but because her long-term relationship with a woman became public knowledge.

    Jordan was born in Houston's Fifth Ward, a segregated neighborhood, in 1936. Her family was actively involved in the local Baptist church, and when Jordan was a teenager, her father took up preaching. Jordan seemed to inherit her father's skill at public speaking. A tall, stout girl who was not traditionally "feminine" in appearance, Jordan learned early on to use her deep, rich voice to her advantage, making a name for herself in high school oratory competitions.

    In the early 1950s, one of the nation's few African-American female lawyers, Edith Spurlock Sampson, spoke at Jordan's high school and inspired the young woman to become a lawyer - a difficult career path at that time, when only one law school in Texas admitted blacks. But Jordan's father encouraged her and helped finance her education. After attending Texas State University, an all-black school, Jordan went north and got her law degree from Boston University. When she returned to Texas in 1959 and passed the bar exam, she was only the third African-American woman to be licensed to practice law in that state.

    Jordan's first clients came from her family's church, where her father encouraged her to pass out business cards. Wills and divorces for church members became the staple of her law practice, which she ran from her parents' dining room. But the routine soon bored her, and she turned to the local Democratic Party for more excitement.

    Her first taste of politics came when she volunteered for the Kennedy-Johnson campaign in 1960. Though she started out by stuffing envelopes, Jordan was tapped to fill in at the last minute for a speaker who became ill. "I was startled with the impact I had on people," Jordan recalled of her first campaign speech, delivered in a church. "Those people were just as turned on and excited as if some of the head candidates had been there to talk about the issues." Recognizing her talents, local party leaders promptly placed her on the speaking circuit, where she came to the attention of many prominent Texas Democrats.

    Jordan caught the political bug and decided to run for office herself two years later. She lost her bid for the Texas House of Representatives, then ran again in 1964 and was defeated a second time. During that campaign, some of Jordan's advisers warned her about a potentially career-damaging predicament: She had gone on the stump with a close female "companion." Jordan willingly became more discreet, and her relationship with the woman ended soon after. In 1966, Jordan's run for a seat in the state Senate was successful, making her the first black woman ever to sit in that body.

    Ironically, at the same time that she was learning to hide her lesbianism for career purposes, Jordan formed the most lasting relationship of her life. In the late 1960s, she accepted an invitation to go camping with female friends and on that trip met Nancy Earl, a white woman who worked as an educational psychologist. For almost 30 years, Earl was Jordan's closest companion and occasional speechwriter. But because of her political ambitions, Jordan always masked their relationship as a friendship, even after the two women bought five acres of land together near Austin and custom-built a house there, where they entertained like any married couple would.

    In 1972, Jordan achieved one of her greatest ambitions when she won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and became the South's first black congresswoman. Jordan's powerful speaking style attracted national attention during the televised Watergate hearings of the House Judiciary Committee, which was bringing articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. "My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total," Jordan eloquently told the committee and the American public. "I am not going to ... be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution."

    By 1976, Jordan was so highly regarded that her name made the short list of possible running mates for Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter. That year, she hit her political peak when she became the first black woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.

    But Jordan's closet prevented her from extending her fervor for civil rights to equality for her fellow gays and lesbians. In 1976, either from fear of being outed or of losing votes, Jordan publicly refused to co-sponsor federal gay rights legislation. "There is no way," she told a radio talk show host, "that I can equate discrimination on the basis of sexual preference with discrimination on the basis of skin color."

    Just as her political career was soaring, Jordan abruptly retired from office in 1978. Though she denied being ill, she was suffering from multiple sclerosis and opted for a quiet life in Austin with Earl. For the next 15 years, she taught at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, reemerging in Washington briefly in 1994 as the chair of President Clinton's task force on immigration.

    After Jordan's death from viral pneumonia in 1996, the Houston Chronicle quietly outed her by running an obituary citing Earl as her "longtime companion" - common newspaper code for "lover." But Earl steadfastly honored Jordan's desire for privacy. "I was her good friend," Earl told a reporter. "People can say whatever they want."

     
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