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.
In Praise of Julia Carson
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.