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The prime of Ms.

The prime of Ms.


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

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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