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Noted lesbian
activist Jean O'Leary dies at 57

Noted lesbian
activist Jean O'Leary dies at 57

Oleary_jean

Jean O'Leary, a nun-turned-lesbian activist who organized the first White House meeting of gay rights leaders and helped create National Coming Out Day, died Saturday of complications from lung cancer. She was 57. O'Leary was diagnosed with the cancer in September 2003 and died at the home of her partner of 12 years, longtime friend Sean Strub said Sunday. For three decades O'Leary was active in feminist, lesbian, and Democratic circles, working for laws prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians and those with AIDS. Born in Kingston, N.Y., to a devout Roman Catholic family, she attended Catholic schools while growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1966 she entered the convent of the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Mary but left after five years to pursue a doctorate in organizational development at Yeshiva University in New York. There she became involved in the emerging gay rights movement. "Jean was really the one out there plowing new territory," said Strub, who had known O'Leary for 20 years. "At a time when a lot of the gay activist community couldn't be ambitious enough to think about having a meeting at the White House, Jean was out there pulling the strings to make it happen." O'Leary joined the Gay Activists Alliance but felt that women were deprived of a voice in the male-dominated group and left with others to found another group called Lesbian Feminist Liberation. Strub said the split came over who would make the coffee at meetings. Later she reunited with the alliance's former leader, Bruce Voeller, as co-executive directors of what became the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. They fought on issues such as repealing sodomy laws. O'Leary also was active in Democratic politics. In 1976 she was one of three openly gay delegates to the national convention. She chaired the Democratic National Committee's Gay and Lesbian Caucus from 1992 to 2002. Working through Midge Costanza, a special assistant to President Jimmy Carter, O'Leary organized the first White House meeting of gay and lesbian leaders, which was held in March 1977. "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 in her opening remarks at the three-hour meeting. In 1988 O'Leary and Rob Eichberg established the first National Coming Out Day, designed for gay men and lesbians to publicly declare their sexuality. O'Leary had also served as executive director of a public interest law firm and in later years lived in Palm Springs, Calif., and ran a political consulting firm. In addition to her partner, Lisa Phelps, O'Leary is survived by two brothers, a sister, and Phelps's two children. A memorial service was being planned at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. (AP)

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