Barbara Jordan

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Attorney, political science and ethics professor, Texas state senator, acting governor of Texas for a day, keynote speaker at the 1976 Democratic National Convention (with a speech ranked 5th on the “Top 100 American Speeches of the 20th Century” list compiled by 137 scholars), Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, and U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform chair, Barbara Jordan was an American political powerhouse. She began her career when Jim Crow was still de jure Southern law (when she went out with her white coworkers, they had to visit the “black side of town”) and so took the title of ‘first black woman’ for many of her accomplishments. When the Watergate scandal broke, she played a pivotal role in pushing for Nixon’s impeachment, giving another memorable speech in the process. Her fame earned her, among other things: a place on a USPS stamp; a statue at the University of Texas at Austin, where she taught; and several schools named after her.

Jordan’s personal life was more reserved. She had multiple sclerosis, for which she eventually used first a cane, then a wheelchair. When she died of pneumonia, a complication of leukemia, she left behind her partner of nearly 30 years, Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist who she met on a camping trip. She kept the nature of their relationship secret enough that her early biographers disagreed on whether it was romantic, but in her obituary the Houston Chronicle referred to Earl as Jordan’s “constant companion.” The queer community, at least, has made up its mind; Jordan/Rustin Coalition, an activist organization for black LGBT folks, uses her as a namesake, and PlanetOut has an entry on her – somewhat ironic since she publicly refused to co-sponsor federal gay rights legislation. Still, the necessity of maintaining political decorum – and Earl’s continued respect for Jordan’s privacy – does create an ambiguity common to queer icons that bears mention.

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