Barbara Jordan and the Ethics of Silence

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...

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