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social sciences

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Jordan, Barbara (1936-1996)  
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In July 1988 Jordan suffered a heart attack while exercising in her swimming pool. Earl--described in the press as Jordan's "housemate"--saved her by calling for emergency medical assistance and working to revive her. After the incident doctors, describing Jordan's medical condition, revealed that she had multiple sclerosis.

Jordan quickly recovered from the heart attack and resumed a vigorous schedule, determined to overcome her physical challenges. Even after being diagnosed with leukemia in 1994, she continued to teach and travel to speaking engagements. At last, however, she contracted pneumonia as a complication of the leukemia and died on January 17, 1996 in Austin.

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Jordan had never publicly acknowledged her lesbianism, but friends described her as "straightforward about [it] in private." Both former Texas Governor Ann Richards and United States Representative Sheila Jackson Lee from Jordan's home district in Houston referred to Earl in their eulogies at Jordan's funeral. Earl herself maintained her long habit of public silence, declining the invitation of Jordan's sisters to sit with the family at the burial service in Austin.

In light of Jordan's strong record on civil rights for women and minorities and her reputation for forthrightness, her reticence on the topics of her own sexual orientation and of glbtq rights is something of an enigma. Gay reporter Juan Palomo of the Austin American-Statesman declared that "[i]f anybody had the luxury to say 'By golly, I'm a lesbian, and this is the woman I love,' it was Barbara Jordan. She could have done it, and her stature would not have been diminished one bit."

This statement may have been true at the end of her career, but certainly not at the beginning. In the homophobic social climate of the early 1960s, an openly lesbian candidate would have stood scant chance of election. One of Jordan's political advisors recalled that campaign directors discouraged her from appearing with her companion at the time and that their relationship ended soon thereafter. To what extent this experience affected Jordan's future thinking and conduct is impossible to know.

The Washington Post once referred to Barbara Jordan as "the first black woman everything"--an accolade, but also a burden. She was a vocal and effective advocate for both African Americans and women, but was decidedly reluctant to become the icon or champion of the physically challenged. Although she supported legislation barring discrimination against people with disabilities, she once declared to Earl that she did not "want to become the poster child for the Multiple Sclerosis Society," and she hid the nature of her condition for years although curiosity about it was rampant.

She seems to have had a similar attitude with regard to her lesbianism, about which there was also widespread speculation. It is regrettable that Jordan never felt the freedom to declare her sexual orientation publicly or to raise her eloquent voice in support of her glbtq sisters and brothers.

Jordan is the subject of a play by Kristine Thatcher, Voice of Good Hope. First performed in 2000, it combines quotations from Jordan with invented dialogue in scenes depicting key moments in her life from childhood through her career to her final illness. The play does not delve into the exact nature of Jordan's relationship with Earl but portrays it as close and significant.

Linda Rapp

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"Barbara Jordan Wills Her Estate to Sisters, Friend and Mother." Jet (February 12, 1996): 18.

Hines, Cragg. "A Voice for Justice Dies; Barbara Jordan Lived as a Pioneer and Prophet." Houston Chronicle (January 18, 1996): 1.

"Jordan, Barbara C." Current Biography Yearbook. Judith Graham, ed. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1993. 289-93.

Moss, J. Jennings. "Barbara Jordan: The Other Life." The Advocate 702 (March 5, 1996): 38-45.

Rogers, Mary Beth. Barbara Jordan: American Hero. New York: Bantam Books, 1998.


    Citation Information
    Author: Rapp, Linda  
    Entry Title: Jordan, Barbara  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated March 27, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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