The prime of Ms. Jean

Late activist Jean O’Leary got gays their first White House meeting and cofounded National Coming Out Day

BY Fred Kuhr

July 04 2005 11:00 PM ET

Much was made
during the 1990s of the access gays and lesbians had in the
Clinton White House. But the truth is, getting them into the
building would not have been possible without the work
of Jean O’Leary, who famously orchestrated the
very first meeting between gays and White House
officials back in 1977 during the Carter administration.

“This is
the first time in the history of this country that a
president has seen fit to acknowledge the rights and
needs of some 20 million Americans,”
O’Leary said at the beginning the groundbreaking
three-hour meeting.

O’Leary—who died June 4 at age 57 after a
two-year battle with lung cancer—was a tireless
activist. In 1976 she was the first out lesbian
delegate elected to the Democratic National Convention. She
served on Carter’s International Women’s
Year commission, making her the first openly gay
person to be named to a presidential commission. And in
1987, O’Leary founded the very first National
Coming Out Day with psychologist Rob Eichberg.

“Jean and
Rob had played heavily in LGBT politics for years, but they
knew that our community’s power was directly related
to our visibility,” says Lynn Shepodd,
executive director of National Coming Out Day from
1990 to 1993. “Jean was a fine activist with a keen
business and political sense and an unstoppable
determination for equality, driven by a compassionate
heart.”

In her last
moments O’Leary was surrounded by family and close
friends at the San Clemente, Calif., home she shared
with her partner, Lisa Phelps. “I am proud to
have been with Jean during the last 12 years of her life,
and I am proud of Jean’s political
accomplishments,” Phelps said in a statement.
“She set an example of community involvement for our
15-year-old daughter, Victoria, and instilled in her the
importance of political activism.”

Friends and
fellow activists praised O’Leary’s commitment
to women’s and gay rights. “Jean
O’Leary was a link of kindness and humanity and
inclusive politics who helped the women’s movement to
recognize the universal cost of homophobia and the gay
movement to see that marginalizing the voices of
lesbians would only diminish its power,” Gloria
Steinem said in a written statement.

O’Leary
was a former nun who grew up in a devoutly Roman Catholic
family. Born March 4, 1948, in Kingston, N.Y., she
attended Catholic schools as a youth in Cleveland. She
entered the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Mary
convent in 1966 but five years later made the decision to
leave the sisterhood in order to pursue a doctorate at
Yeshiva University in New York City. Once
O’Leary was in the birthplace of the modern gay and
lesbian civil rights movement, it wasn’t long before
she became involved.

She joined the
Gay Activists Alliance, but feeling that men dominated the
group and that they were not willing to give women equal
time, she left in 1972 to form Lesbian Feminist
Liberation, taking most of the GAA’s women with
her. Two years later, seeing much of the same at the
then-named National Gay Task Force, she negotiated an
agreement to become the group’s first female
leader as co–executive director alongside Bruce
Voeller, the onetime leader of the GAA.

“Jean was
really the one out there plowing new territory,” says
Sean Strub, a friend of O’Leary’s for
more than 20 years.

In recent years,
O’Leary ran a consulting firm specializing in voter
contact and candidate consulting. But it will be her
pioneering work during the 1970s and 1980s that will
be remembered most.

“As an
early advocate and pioneer for equality, Jean O’Leary
was a true hero,” says Human Rights Campaign
president Joe Solmonese. “Her contributions to
the community cannot go understated.”

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