THE RELEVANT QUEER: Politician, Attorney and Educator Barbara Jordan, Born February 21, 1936

Representative Barbara Jordan. (US Congress, restored by Adam Cuerden/Black Americans in Congress 1870–2007

“If you’re going to play the game properly you’d better know every rule.” 

TRQ: Barbara Jordan, Born February, 1936

Politician, attorney and educator Barbara Jordan, the first African American elected to the Texas Senate, was born in Houston, Texas. Not permitted to attend the University of Texas at Austin because of segregationist policies, Jordan earned her degree from Texas Southern University. Texas Southern had been established to accommodate black students and did not have a pre-law program.

Jordan became only the third African American woman to be licensed to practice law in Texas, when she was admitted to the Massachusetts and Texas bar upon graduation from Boston University in 1959. Beginning her law career in her parents’ home, Jordan was elected to the Texas Senate within eight years. By 1973, Jordan was a congresswoman representing Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A leader in the Civil Rights Movement, Jordan sponsored and co-sponsored over 70 bills in support of the underprivileged. During her years in Congress, Jordan was made a member of the House Judiciary Committee, and the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. A year after her election to Congress, Jordan delivered a 15-minute televised speech in favour of impeaching Richard Nixon, at the opening hearings. She was also the first African American woman to give a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, where she even received one delegate vote for President.

Multiple sclerosis would end Jordan’s career in Congress in 1979, but she remained a respected political force. She wrote Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait that same year, and she continued afterwards to speak at the Democratic National Convention and teach at UT Austin. Bill Clinton appointed her to lead the Commission on Immigration Reform. In 1994, Jordan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Heeding advisors’ warnings not to officially come out as lesbian on the campaign trail, Jordan later did not hide her relationship with life companion Nancy Earl. Earl was an educational psychologist, and their relationship lasted for nearly thirty years. Earl was Jordan’s primary caregiver through her final days of suffering from both multiple sclerosis and leukaemia.

Jordan passed away on January 17, 1996. At her funeral, President Clinton remarked, “Whenever she stood to speak, she jolted the nation’s attention with her artful and articulate defense of the Constitution, the American Dream, and the common heritage and destiny we share, whether we like it or not.”

Today, the Jordan Rustin Coalition continues her work to “empower Black same-gender loving, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and families in Greater Los Angeles, to promote equal marriage rights and to advocate for fair treatment of everyone without regard to race, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

Barbara Jordan delivering the keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, New York City.
Warren K. Leffler—USN&WR/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-U9-32937-32)


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