With a federal appeals court ruling California’s Prop 8 unconstitutional earlier this month, the showdown over gay marriage moves inexorably closer to the Supreme Court. As the LBJ community celebrates the 76th anniversary of Barbara Jordan’s birth, it’s an appropriate time to consider what Jordan might have thought about the subject of gay rights as a committed public servant, a champion of social justice, and an American who remained in the closet.
In 1996, when Jordan’s Houston Chronicle obituary mentioned her longtime companion and confirmed rumors of her homosexuality, some gay readers criticized her decision not to come out during her lifetime.
Others who knew Jordan attempted to protect her wishes not to discuss her sexuality. Shortly after her death, Jordan’s friends unsuccessfully lobbied the Advocate not to publish an exposé on her private life so her legacy would focus on her work as a congresswoman and educator rather than her sexual preference.
We can speculate on Jordan’s reasons for silence. Coming out was without a doubt more controversial when Jordan was in the public spotlight than it is today. Maybe she felt that her career would have been compromised. Maybe she simply enjoyed this measure of privacy. But questioning Jordan’s personal motives is beside the point.
A more pertinent but stickier question is: as a gay public servant and national figure, did Jordan ever have an ethical responsibility to address the gay rights cause?
Stephen Bailey, a former Dean of the Maxwell School, wrote, “Personal and public life are so shot through with ambiguities and paradoxes that timidity and withdrawal are quite natural and normal responses.”
But Barbara Jordan was anything but timid and withdrawn. She spent her life building a moral certainty around her own self-worth and the protections and equality promised by the Constitution to every American. She demanded these rights with towering oratory for decades.
Jordan campaigned in the 1960s to expand the protections of the Voting Rights Act, spoke eloquently for a nation at the Watergate hearings and fought for the Equal Rights Amendment. Gay rights weren’t on her agenda.
I’m confident that Jordan felt that Americans, gay and straight, deserve the same legal and economic rights. But I don’t care that she never chose to come out and make this her cause, and even though I would hope that if she were alive she would advocate for marriage equality, I wouldn’t complain if she didn’t.
Today gay marriage is at the heart of the debate over America’s social conscience. This wasn’t so when Jordan was working for civil rights and gender equality during her time in office.
If anyone had the moral stature and dignity to further the gay rights movement, it was Jordan. But she was also deeply aware of her role as a leader of the black community and a conciliator on the national level.
As a prominent figure, Jordan likely realized that coming out would have meant taking on the additional symbolic mantle of gay rights advocate. While I don’t suggest that public figures should stay in the closet, I think it’s reasonable to believe that Jordan may have considered coming out a distraction from her passionate fight for the social justice issues of her day.
Stephen Bailey also wrote, “The only three friends of courage in public service are: ambition, a sense of duty and a recognition that inaction may be quite as painful as action.”
I have no doubt that Barbara Jordan was driven by ambition and a sense of duty. I’m equally certain that she carefully considered her sexual orientation in the context of her role as a congresswoman and educator.
As a public servant, she had the ethical responsibility to consider the implications of her personal life on her work, but her decision to remain silent wasn’t a passive act or a personal failure. She recognized the tension between inaction and action concerning this part of her identity and made a decision.
I don’t discuss Jordan’s sexuality to sensationalize her love life or to distract from her inspiring legacy. I do so to point out that Jordan’s life, like every life in public service, was full of the competing demands of personal and public concerns.
We remember Jordan not as a leader of the gay rights movement but rather as a civil rights leader and a voice of conscience for the American people. Perhaps she could have been remembered for both, but that decision isn’t up to us.
Giving public figures the independence and discretion to question their own experiences and decide on the nature and content of self-disclosure is a matter of public trust. Whether public figures respond ethically to these questions is a matter of courage. Barbara Jordan’s life was a lesson in courage.