Ellen Andersen

In Praise of Julia Carson

Filed By Ellen Andersen | December 17, 2007 5:10 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, Politics, Politics
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U.S. Representative Julia Carson (1938-2007) is widely beloved by the LGBT community in Indiana, but readers from beyond our fair state may not understand why we here at Bilerico are so devastated by her death. I’m writing this post to give you a small sense of who she was, and why her death is such a profound loss to LGBT folks here in Indiana and across the nation. Here are three things I’d like you to know about her.

She was a staunch and steadfast ally of the LGBT community

Julia’s support for LGBT people goes back decades. The first recorded “gay rights” vote I can find for her occurred in the late 1970s, when she voted to repeal Indiana’s sodomy law as a state senator. She was a vocal advocate for gay rights in the Indiana State Senate throughout the 80s, and when she was elected to Congress in 1996, she took that advocacy with her to Washington, D.C.

She received perfect or nearly-perfect scores from the HRC for each of her five full terms in Congress (she was serving her sixth term when she died.) She co-sponsored hate crimes bills and bills to repeal “don’t ask don’t tell.” She co-sponsored the various incarnations of ENDA – including the version that included gender identity. She fought against the federal marriage amendment. And she regularly harangued members of the Congressional Black Caucus about the importance of marriage equality.

Back home in Indiana, Julia spoke at gay pride rallies and attended events sponsored by the Indiana Stonewall Democrats. And when the Indianapolis City-County Council initially voted down a proposal to amend the Human Rights Ordinance (HRO) to include, among other things, employment and housing protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, Julia went on the warpath. As Bob Dion put it over at Pam's House Blend, she “publicly excoriated members of her own party for their lack of resolve, and she pointedly associated gay equality with racial equality.” (The HRO subsequently passed.)

She was a bright blue light in the middle of a red state

Indiana’s a pretty red state, although not as red as it used to be. So who’d a thunk we’d have one of the bluest members of Congress representing little old Indianapolis? No centrist Democrat she, Julia was a force of lefty-liberal nature. She voted to oppose the war in Iraq, one of only a small handful to do so in the entire Congress. She was adamantly pro-choice, anti-death penalty, pro-progressive taxation, and pro-nationalized health care. She fought to reduce homelessness, move children out of poverty, and protect women’s rights. My goodness, you’d have thought she was from Massachusetts.

Not all LGBT people are Democrats, of course, but the majority of us are (about 75%, give or take a little). Julia was our bright blue beacon of light.

She was an American success story

Julia Carson was a modern Horatio Alger. She was raised in poverty by a single mother, who was just a teenager when Julia was born. She graduated from a segregated high school in 1955. Julia married young and had two kids, but the marriage didn’t last and Julia ended up as a working single mother herself. She worked for a while as a waitress and eventually landed a job as a secretary for United Auto Workers Local #550.

Her political career began in the 1960s, when the U.S. Representative Andy Jacobs Jr. hired her to work in his Indiana office. She ran for the State House at Jacobs’ encouragement, winning her first political race in 1972 and starting a series of electoral wins that would run uninterrupted for more than 30 years. From the state house she moved to the state senate. From the state senate to Center Township Trustee. And then in 1996 she became the first African-American, and the first woman, ever to represent Indianapolis.

As Julia put it in an NPR interview: “My mother dropped out of school when she was in the second grade. She lost her own mother when she was only four years of age — and for someone like me to be able to walk life's journey into the halls of the United States Congress, as an elected member of that body, it's most overwhelming...”

Her body will lie in state at the Indiana Statehouse Rotunda this Friday from 10am to 10pm, with a memorial service scheduled for 6pm. The funeral service will be held at 10am Saturday at Eastern Star Church (on East 30th Street). She’ll be buried at Crown Hill Cemetery. Flags in Indiana will fly at half mast until sundown on Saturday.

Rest in peace, Julia. We miss you.


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Ellen, thank you for an excellent tribute to an amazing woman. I didn't know Julia as long as a number of my friends here in Indianapolis, but she really was as warm and friendly as she has been described. She always had a story and a smile when you got a chance to talk with her.

She always stood up for what was right. We have lost a great person in Julia Carson.

I'll be going down to the statehouse to pay my respects. I invite everyone within driving distance to do the same.

I will miss Julia Carson very much. She was very sweet. At the Indianapolis gay pride parade I shook her hand and said "I love your work!" and she simply replied "and I love you."

According to voting scoring by the National Journal, in the last Session of Congress Julia Carson had a more liberal voting record than either Maxine Waters or Barney Frank. Not too shabby for the Representative from Indianapolis, eh?

Thanks for that Ellen. As I was reading that, I was really reminded of all that Julia meant to me and how vital she was to even the smallest of progressive successes through out the last 30 years. Its mind boggling to see it all laid out in front of you like this. Looking at her work and to see how perfectly tailored she was, at least for me, in congress. I could not have represented my own views as well. Ive been so honored and fortunate to have her as my congresswoman.
To see how much influence our Julia had on the world really gives me a great sense of pride and horrific loss. I do hope, that in some small way, her life in retrospect, will continue to do great things. I hope that she is a lesson to anyone who thinks they dont matter. To anyone who thinks fighting the good fight is beyond their humble beginnings. A lesson to all of us to some degree to feel empowered to stand up and make a difference even when the odds are against you. She was truly an extraordinary woman, but she did not do the great things she did for the memorials or testimonials. She had a fundamental belief in the unbreakable human spirit. And she saw that sprit in everyone she met, and she fought for that spirit everyday of her life.
We all owe it to Julia, regardless of what part of the nation you live in, to continue to fight and defend that light that makes us all uniquely human. Let us not forget what Julia taught us. Rest in peace Julia. We will honor and miss you always.

Julia Carson was a special breed indeed. Always fighting the good fight, she stood her ground against incredible odds. An African-American and a woman in a state known for dismissing both, she brought a breath of fresh air to our state and the nation. She was a more rational version of Dennis Kucinich.

And I'll miss her for that. I can only hope her successor lives up to the big shoes they'll have to fill.

In a day when, all too often, support for equal rights takes the form of apology, negotiation, and minimalism, Julia Carson, my representative, stood out from the crowd. She was always the one standing tall and speaking out loud in favor of human equality. We have lost a representative, a friend, a mentor and a sterling example that politicians do not have to trim their sails to be successful. Whenever any "ally" tells you to settle for the possible, remember Julia standing tall for gay rights in Indiana from the 1970s.

The best memorial for Julia Carson would be for the people of Indiana to remember and follow her passionate call for equal rights for every person.

Thank you, Ellen, for your wonderful tribute to Julia Carson. Zach, your post brought tears to my eyes.

It's hard to believe Julia is no longer with us, and I will treasure my memories of her forever.

For me, Julia represented many things over many years. She was one of the very best friends our community has ever had in Congress, and she had long been one of the very best friends and supporters our community had ever had -- or ever will have -- in Indiana. I doubt we'd have passed the HRO in 2005 if Julia had not come to our rescue (Today, with a new Republican CCC and Mayor, had the HRO not passed back then, it could not happen now for several more years).

On a more personal level, Julia was a fun, energetic and compassionate friend. I remember her asking me to come to Washington to spend a week with her several years ago. She insisted I sleep in the bedroom of her one-bedroom apartment while she slept on the sofa each night. She was up every morning at 5AM and was busy on the phone when I got up each day. In her office she was a whirlwind of busy, and several times a day she took the block-long brisk walk over to the U S Capitol building and climbed those many steep steps to cast votes through out the week.

I also remember one night ten years ago when Julia had come to my house downtown and we walked over to the Canal to the Jazz Fest. Walking around among the thousands of people along the Canal, Julia did not have a moment without someone coming up to her to say complimentary things to and about her. The passion in their eyes was amazing -- it seemed each one had a story to tell about some favor Julia had done for them or a family member, or a problem that Julia had solved for them. When it was over, she came back to my house and we were watching the news -- and together we saw the broadcast that Princess Diana had died that night. I was struck that night by what I saw as a similar depth of compassion by those who loved Diana and that of Julia's many fans.

I remember being in the Congressional dining room with Julia when she saw Barney Frank at a table with friends and asked me if I thought Barney would come to Indianapolis for a fundraiser for her and Stonewall Democrats. Before I could respond she marched right over to Barney and asked him, and he said yes -- and over the next few years Barney came here at least twice to help her campaign and to help raise money for Indiana Stonewall Democrats.

I remember sitting at my computer one Sunday afternoon and getting an email from Julia asking where I was. When I told her I was at home, she revealed she was sitting outside my window in her car. I was blown away by the fact that she had a Blackberry and was using it to send emails - which was all new to her. We went to eat together and she was like a kid with a new toy, excited by the technology.

And I remember being at Julia's house every election night to help celebrate her victories in her various runs for Congress since 1996.

And I'll forever be grateful that I was able to spend some private time with her, in that same house at her bedside two weeks ago, to say my goodbyes.

We may never see another public servant like Julia Carson in our lifetimes. As a community we owe her a great deal. I hope every Julia supporter who reads this will look around to see if you have any Julia Carson campaign signs in your basement or garage. If you do, please consider putting them out in your yard on Friday and Saturday. Let's show Julia -- and Indianapolis -- how much we love her!

If any public servant ever deserved a monument to their life-long service to their fellow citizens, Julia Carson is surly that person. I'm reminded of the response of Abraham Lincoln (a former Hoosier), who in 1864 was asked to contribute to a fund for a marble monument for his close friend and former House colleague, Owen Lovejoy of Illinois, who died in office.

Lincoln's reply was to make a contribution for the monument, and then he added this: "Let him have his marble monument; but his real monument is the love for him in the hearts of all who knew him."

The same certainly can be said of Julia. She is in my prayers.

Ellen, thank you for an excellent tribute to an amazing woman.

Yes, indeed.

Thank you, Ellen.

And thank you, thank you, thank you, Julia.

Thank you for your message, Joe Miller! I loved reading it!