BY CARMEN SIERING
When Jean Capler was named Bloomington’s 2016 Woman of the Year, it was something of a surprise. “I was really honored, but I looked at the list of other women who have received the award and there were a lot of impressive women doing pretty impressive things,” she says. “And I just do what I do.”
Capler, 52, came to Bloomington in 1992 to start a doctorate in biology at Indiana University, but soon switched to social work, earning an M.S.W. from IUPUI. “I’m a really social person,” she says. “I was studying turtles, and turtles don’t talk to you.”
Since 2014 she’s worked in resource facilitation for brain injury patients at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana in Indianapolis. Before that, she had a private counseling practice in Bloomington.
As a therapist, Capler worked primarily with the LGBTQ+ community, particularly transgender individuals, a group she feels is greatly underserved. She also advocated against what she calls “those ridiculous bathroom bills,” as well as for the establishment of a hate crime law in Indiana.
Capler says her approach to activism is informed by being a social worker. “It’s about respect for the dignity and worth of each individual,” she says. “And understanding how systems work and how collectively we have much more power to effect change.”
In 2011, she co-founded FairTalk, a grassroots LGBTQ+ advocacy group, in response to the Indiana legislature’s attempt to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
In 2014, Capler was part of the leadership team for the Bloomington leg of Freedom Indiana, throwing FairTalk’s resources behind defeating the amendment when it went before the state senate. “We ran phone banks. We went to the statehouse for committee hearings,” Capler recalls. “And we were amazed when we won the battle.”
While this was going on, Capler and her partner of nearly 17 years, Jenny Austin, were planning their wedding. Since they couldn’t legally marry in Indiana, they decided to do so in Illinois. “But there were these federal court cases, and during three days in June we could get married here, and we did,” Capler says. “Then three weeks later, we got married all over again in Illinois because we had already rented the hall and all of the guests were invited.”
Like many others, Capler was dismayed by the results of this fall’s election. Her response was to co-found yet another grassroots organization, Call to Action. “We exist to support people taking regular political action for issues they care about,” Capler says. “We can’t just be upset for the first 100 days and then get tired and quit.”