by Lisa L. Moore
On the University of Texas campus, amid the Confederate monuments and buildings named for architects of Jim Crow, the statue of Barbara Jordan invites us to read the landscape differently. Our campus is a place where a “nest of homosexuals” was fired in the 1940s; where the dean of students canceled a Gay Liberation Front dance in the 1970s; where, in the 1990s, a member of the College of Liberal Arts Promotion and Tenure Committee argued that a lesbian professor should be denied tenure because she was violating the state’s sodomy law; where employees with same-sex partners did not get benefits and compensation equal to their heterosexual colleagues until the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in 2015; where trans students could not put their correct names on diplomas until just this year. So it’s a delicious irony that, at the University’s main entrance at 24th and Whitis, we are welcomed to the University by an iconic figure in queer, Black, disabled, and feminist histories, refusing to let us see those stories as separate.
As depicted in bronze, Jordan stands firmly on sensible shoes, fists planted on substantial hips, her gaze piercing from beneath a strong brow and a short haircut, the sleeves of her suit jacket pushed up to the elbows. The statue was unveiled in 2009, following a week of special events honoring Jordan as the first Black congresswoman from the South, the moral voice of the Watergate hearings, recipient of the 1994 Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a beloved professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. It was the first statue of a woman (not a Winged Victory or an unnamed mother, but a real historical woman) at UT. Incredibly, it’s still the only one.
Most campus statues were installed as marks of honor from University presidents or the Board of Regents. But the Barbara Jordan statue, like the ones recognizing César Chavez and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., resulted from a grassroots effort, years of advocacy and fundraising by students. The women’s service organization Orange Jackets, one of UT’s oldest, noticed back in 2002 that women were not represented by public art on campus. They quickly agreed that Barbara Jordan was the right figure to break that barrier, as she had so many others. Over the next few years, as the students who had started the effort graduated, a Barbara Jordan Statue Committee was formed in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement—the student affairs, not academic administration, side of the campus. At the time, Dr. Sherri Sanders of the DDCE said that the memorial was meant to serve as a reminder of justice, freedom, and civil rights: “That has driven many of the decisions we have made—from placement of the statue underneath the Battle Oaks, to our choice of quotes by Jordan on the stelae surrounding the statue.”
Of course, Jordan’s legacy as a civil rights icon is complicated. In 1960s and 1970s Texas, she was the moderate candidate, who often garnered votes at the expense of more radical rivals known for their involvement in the civil rights movement. Although she broke barriers as the first African-American woman from the South to be elected to Congress, she always refused to “represent,” saying in a 1976 Texas Monthly profile, for example, “I am neither a Black politician nor a female politician. I am a politician.” As is so often the case with queer history, we’ll be disappointed if we look to Barbara Jordan to find either a secret radical or a blameless victim. Like many figures in LGBTQ+ history, she was brilliant, talented, clever, complicated, and sometimes disappointing. Queer.
These knotty contradictions are hiding in plain sight, just like the Barbara Jordan statue. Jordan’s queerness and her disability were the open secrets of her seventeen years on the faculty at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She had left public life abruptly, shortly after being elected to her third term in Congress in 1976. At the time, her biographer Mary Beth Rogers writes, everyone wondered “why she would give up such a promising career at the height of her powers, the peak of her influence.” But Jordan “stayed silent and left most questions unanswered.”
From my perspective as a queer studies scholar, however, the answers are there. Queer studies methodologies teach us how to see and interpret them. Much is made of the fact that Jordan never publicly identified as lesbian or queer. But it’s equally important that she never publicly admitted that she had multiple sclerosis, despite the fact that she used a wheelchair full-time after 1988. Even her closest friends, according to Rogers, never had a conversation with Jordan about either her mobility or her love life.
In her 2000 biography, Rogers balks at describing Nancy Earl, with whom she shared a home in Austin from 1976 until her death in 1996, as Jordan’s partner. “Speculation on the sex lives of public figures is a popular pastime. I declined to do that in my work on Barbara Jordan,” she writes. Jordan never spoke about her illnesses and disabilities, either, but Rogers has no qualms about outing her in that arena. Queer studies scholars are familiar with this assumption: that someone’s identity and relationships are so stigmatizing that they deserve a special privacy, out of “respect” for the wishes of the deceased. In fact, what’s being respected is the oppressive circumstances that hid these relationships in the first place, downplaying the importance of lovers and partners in someone’s life in a way that actually cements those homophobic assumptions into the historical record.
Jordan’s political career had been threatened by homophobic attacks since she started in politics in Houston’s Third Ward in the early 1960s. Jordan lost her first race, for election to the Texas House, in 1964. According to a 1996 story in the queer magazine The Advocate, Jordan “had a female companion in the early 1960s who joined her on the campaign trail.” Advisors warned that their closeness could damage her political chances. The Advocate, speaking to people who knew her at the time, reported, “Jordan listened and, without putting up a fight, agreed to impose a public distance between herself and the companion.” As so often in queer history, we see that it’s hard to sustain relationships that are secret and considered damaging. For Jordan, “the relationship did not last long after that.”
In the Texas Monthly cover profile, Bill Broyles wrote that in 1970, supporters of her opponent in the Democratic primary again “began spreading rumors about Jordan’s sex life.” Although Jordan won that primary handily and was elected to Congress, it was clear that, without a visible heterosexual partner, Jordan’s personal life could still be a political liability. The stakes were high. In the course of his research, Broyles said, he had heard Barbara Jordan described as: “a genius, a hero, the best politician of this century, the salvation of American politics, a mythic figure, the main inspiration for a troubled time, a woman of high destiny,” and “a cross between Lyndon Johnson and Mahatma Gandhi.” Broyles ended his piece by observing, “all she really wants to do is be President.” That’s what the country lost to the oppression and stigma Jordan faced—and internalized–around her queerness and disability.
It had been easier for Jordan to keep her relationships out of the public eye back in Texas, when her affairs were short-lived and her public profile was lower. Jordan moved from her hometown of Houston to Austin in 1966 to start her legislative career. In the more liberal capital city, and perhaps also out from under her preacher father’s eye, Jordan found new friends. Those interviewed by The Advocate described Jordan as “straightforward about her sexual orientation in private.” “`She never denied who she was,’ said a friend who, like nearly everyone who knew her personally, asked not to be identified. `It just was not the public’s need to know.’”
In a 1979 memoir, Jordan described going on a camping trip with friends during this period: “At some point in the evening, Nancy Earl arrived, and that was the first time we’d met face to face.” (And the queer studies scholar asks: had they talked on the phone? Written letters? Was it a set-up?) Jordan describes Earl as “tanned and tow-haired.” “Nancy and I sat there playing the guitar; we had just met but we were singing and drinking and having a swell time.” Telling the story without spilling the tea, Jordan goes on, “I had had a great time and enjoyed myself very much. I remember I thought: This is something I would like to repeat. I’d like to have another party like that. Nancy Earl is a fun person to be with…I could relax and enjoy myself…I had discovered I could relax at parties like that where I was safe.”
Nancy Earl and Barbara Jordan bought a five-acre plot of land together in 1976 and built a home. They entertained and socialized as a couple, but Nancy remained in Texas when Barbara first went to Washington in 1972. During her years in Congress, Jordan distinguished herself by serving on the House Judiciary Committee that adopted articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. The hearings were nationally televised. Her preacher’s-daughter alto became the voice of the nation’s conscience. She cast her questioning of Nixon and his associates as an act of patriotism, intoning statements that became famous such as: “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” This was the Barbara Jordan that Lyndon Johnson loved.
In 1976, Jordan received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Later that year, she began using a cane. Nancy Earl moved to Washington to live with her and help in her office, but before long, Jordan made the shocking announcement that she would be leaving politics. In the DC fishbowl, her relationship with Earl was suddenly much more visible, though Jordan did not attribute her exit from politics to either her health or potential scrutiny of Nancy’s role in her life. Instead, she said only, “my internal compass tells me to divert my energy to something different and to move away from demands which are all-consuming.”
In another era, perhaps she could have used the cliché that she wanted to spend more time with her family.
Jordan still adamantly denied that she had a serious health problem. By the 1990s, she was dealing not only with MS, but with diabetes, leukemia, hypertension, and pneumonia. As a professor at the University of Texas, she was lifted in and out of her car into a wheelchair for years, by friends, colleagues and students with whom she never discussed her health or declining mobility. In the last few months of her life, her doctor and friend, Dr. Rambie Briggs, remembers Jordan glancing at a sheaf of medical records he was holding while visiting her in the hospital. He recalls her saying, “Well, you won’t have to keep all that a secret much longer.” The Houston Chronicle identified Nancy Earl as Jordan’s “longtime companion” in their obituary.
Jordan’s death in 1996 brought renewed attention to her personal life, but those closest to her still did not want to talk about her lesbianism. One begged the Advocate reporter, “Do you really have to write this story?” Nancy Earl would say only: “I was there morning and night to help her get up and get showered and get dressed and go to work…People can say what they want. She was a friend of mine. You can write what you want.” By the late 1990s, however, the politics of “outing” had come to the queer liberation movement, and publications like The Advocate felt that a new public—a queer public—demanded and deserved to know. It was a matter of pride. As one reader wrote in a letter to the editor about the story, “I am especially anxious for all those of every community who idolized Jordan to know she was a lesbian.” Rus Cooper-Dowda expressed a similar sentiment about Jordan’s use of adaptive technology in 2002. Cooper-Dowda recalls watching Jordan give a speech, while using a cane, at the Democratic National Convention: “By the end of the speech, I was consumed by the need to know her disability. I found no information to help me anywhere. Imagine if she had gone public with her MS then — or even by her speech at the next convention? Would I have accepted my own disability better and faster, when the time finally came? Maybe. Maybe.”
The statue on the University of Texas campus does a lot of iconographic work to both conceal and reveal who Barbara Jordan was. One of the Orange Jackets activists said that the group initially wanted to show their hero(ine) seated in her wheelchair, visibilizing her disability. After a lengthy process of submission and re-submission, the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement selected the current design, in which Jordan is standing and speaking. Nevertheless, I see in the statue’s sensible shoes both Jordan’s classic lesbian style, and her need for solid footing as her mobility declined.
Barbara Jordan’s story is one of tremendous overcoming. Said a friend, quoted in The Advocate: “For years she would refuse to tell people what [illness] she had. She was not defined by her physical conditions, her sexual orientation, or the color of her skin. If you were to define her by any of those areas, Barbara Jordan would roar.” Jordan’s statue faces the buildings where Black Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, and LGBTQ Studies, with our Disability Studies commitments, are housed. We hear that roar, and we gently whisper back: we see you anyway, Barbara. You can relax at our party.
With thanks to Dan Oppenheimer for sharing his research on Barbara Jordan with me, and to Karma Chávez, Alison Kafer, and Stephen Russell for providing feedback and additional sources.
Lisa L. Moore (she/her) is Archibald A. Hill Professor of English, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, and Director of the LGBTQ Studies Program at The University of Texas at Austin.
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