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On Mental Health and Acknowledging Us, Rosalynn Carter Was Ahead of Her Time

Rosalynn Carter testifying in front of Congress for mental health in 1979
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The former first lady's advocacy a lifetime ago has proven her to be consequential in helping the marginalized.

The nation officially said goodbye Tuesday to former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who died last week at the age of 96 who left a remarkable and enduring legacy. She advocated on behalf of LGBTQ+ rights and mental health during her lifetime, and in doing so, Carter proved that she was way ahead of her time.

One of the luxuries of being a person of a certain age is that I can vividly recall when Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976. My family has always been staunchly Democratic. My great-grandmother passed on her scrapbooks of Franklin D. Roosevelt to me, which were tattered and worn but chock-full of FDR lore.

She was a postmaster in her small town of New Freeport, Pa., and, among other things, that scrapbook contained buttons and pamphlets about FDR that she garnered after attending national postmasters’ conventions, and one Democratic convention in 1940.

Being a Democrat was always special for me because of the love my great-grandmother had for the party. Growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania, where steel mills and coal mines were ever-present, Democrats always represented unions and the working man. And it wasn’t until Jimmy and Rosalynn came along that someone championed causes critically important to me. They did, and to some extent the party did as well.

It was because of my great-grandmother that I began to understand what Jimmy Carter was all about, and by association his wife, Rosalynn. They were Southern Democrats, a dwindling lot, since many abandoned the party after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed a series of civil rights laws in the 1960s.

For me, both President and Mrs. Carter made being a Democrat even more personal. Until she came along, no one ever said much about mental illness or made any attempt to address gay rights issues.

Mrs. Carter became the second first lady in history to testify in front of Congress when she represented the President’s Commission on Mental Health as its honorary chair in 1979. In 1977, when her husband became the first president to instruct his staff to meet with queer activists at the White House, many credited Mrs. Carter, who helped push for the meeting. Further, she and her husband opposed California’s Proposition 6 in 1978, a measure that would have barred gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools in the state.

It's important to remember that those who suffered from mental health issues in those days had a horrible stigma strapped to their backs. I had firsthand experience seeing how detrimental that was as I came of age in the 1970s.

My aunt was schizophrenic, and she spent 25 years in a mental institution. She took care of my grandmother, and when she wasn't heavily medicated, there was no telling how she would behave.

We looked at her at that time as a freak, because that’s the way society labeled her, and viciously, that's just the way things were. As kids, my brother and sister and I were terrified of her, mainly because no one stuck up for her by telling us that she was sick.

My first cousin Tommy was intellectually disabled. At the time, we called him retarded or, worse, a mongoloid. My siblings and I were frightened of him too. Tom was the sweetest guy, but back then no one understood — or communicated — that Tom was just a little different from the rest of us and he was nothing to be afraid of. Again, society marginalized people like Tom.

Mrs. Carter sought to change all that because she knew she had a voice and a platform to be able to stand up, speak out, and try to elucidate what having mental illness was all about.

For Mrs. Carter, helping people living with mental illness was a lifelong commitment. In a 2019 op-ed for CNN, the former first lady talked about the impetus of her advocacy for mental health when she was helping her husband run for governor of Georgia in 1966.

“I stood outside the entrance of a factory waiting to give people brochures after they finished the night shift," she wrote. "An older woman came out, looking weary from work. When I asked if she would be able to get some sleep, she told me she hoped so, but that she had a daughter who had a mental illness and needed care while the woman’s husband was at his job.

“That conversation would start me on a lifelong crusade for better treatment and policies for people living with mental illnesses. A lot of progress has been made since then, but government response in the United States and globally is not yet on par with the toll mental illnesses take on families.”

Mental illness and disabilities run deep in my family, with my aunt and first cousin, and another first cousin who died by suicide. And then there’s me. I’ve been very open about my battle with severe depression and suicide attempts. Moreover, I’ve been able to have frank conversations with public officials who followed in Mrs. Carter’s wake, including U.S. Reps. Jamie Raskin, and Adam Smith, U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, and others about their mental experiences.

We owe a great deal to Mrs. Carter for the privilege of sharing our stories about battling mental health problems, which provide solace and help for those who suffer. To remain quiet is to be complicit in more suffering and suicide, and Mrs. Carter understood that.

Up until the Carters, it was unheard of for a U.S. president to speak out, reach out, or acknowledge the queer community. Both FDR and Lyndon Johnson had aides who were embroiled in gay scandals that threatened their presidencies — more specifically with Johnson and his top aide Walter Jenkins, who was arrested for soliciting sex in a Washington, D.C. public bathroom.

The perception that large numbers of gay men haunted public restrooms for sex was among the most prevalent stereotypes associated with being gay, and that’s because arrests of gay men in those restrooms were reported in newspapers. So being gay was perceived as being sleazy.

For years, no president came to our defense. To do so would be political suicide. But in their own way, the Carters sought to change that.

When the Carters acknowledged our community by having aides meet with queer activists, they implicitly gave support and recognition to us. It was a watershed moment in our history.

This was all the more surprising since the Carters were deeply religious and were born-again Christians. Entertainer (and wacko!) Anita Bryant’s crusade against gay men in the 1970s stemmed from her born-again Christian beliefs, and it was almost a prerequisite for evangelical Christians to condemn being gay.

Today, we have Christians like Speaker Mike Johnson and his wife, Kelly, who condemn us and try to kill our youth through their damaging conversion therapy. The Carters showed that being Christian and supporting our community was the morally right thing to do.

What’s interesting about the Carters' outreach is that those who suffered from mental health issues and those who were queer were not only severely marginalized, but also deemed freaks and perverts. Mrs. Carter and her husband worked to remove stigma from both communities.

Bill Clinton is often referred to as the “first gay president,” but it was Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter who first opened the White House doors to us.

History has been showing in recent years just how impactful the Carter presidency was and how vital Mrs. Carter’s role was. The Carter era, from 1977 to1981, was tumultuous, with runaway inflation, the crippling Iran hostage situation, and America’s “crisis in confidence,” as Jimmy Carter famously told the nation.

I often think about how different our world would be if Jimmy and Rosalynn were reelected in 1980. Ronald Reagan snookered us with his phony compassion and “grandfatherly” demeanor.

Furthermore, it was revealed soon after President Carter went into hospice earlier this year that there was convincing evidence that Reagan’s aides delayed the release of the Iran hostages, which inevitably led to Carter losing the election to a man who allowed millions to die of AIDS complications.

If Jimmy and Rosalynn were reelected, just imagine who compassionate and outspoken Mrs. Carter would have been about AIDS. There’s no doubt in my mind that she would have led the fight for funding and for Americans to show empathy for those who suffered. While Ronald and Nancy Reagan ran away from AIDS, including distancing themselves from their friend Rock Hudson, the Carters would surely have acted differently.

Like her husband's, Mrs. Carter’s impact on history has only been revealed as we move farther away from the Carter presidency. Her death reminds us about all she did and for the causes she championed. She was truly ahead of her time.

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

If you are having thoughts of suicide or are concerned that someone you know may be, resources are available to help. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 is for people of all ages and identities. Trans Lifeline, designed for transgender or gender-nonconforming people, can be reached at (877) 565-8860. The lifeline also provides resources to help with other crises, such as domestic violence situations. The Trevor Project Lifeline, for LGBTQ+ youth (ages 24 and younger), can be reached at (866) 488-7386. Users can also access chat services at or text START to 678678.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.