June 06, 2005

JEAN O'LEARY, 1948-2005

Jjean_oleary Pioneer gay and lesbian activist Jean O'Leary died on June 4 after a long and difficult battle against lung cancer, at the San Clemente, California home of Lisa Phelps, her partner of 12 years, and surrounded  by her family and close friends. I first met Jean at the headquarters of the Gay Activists Alliance in 1971 (it was located in a converted firehouse). In 1972, frustrated with the sexism of the male-dominated GAA, she founded Lesbian Feminist Liberation, taking most of the women from GAA  with her and establishing one of the first organized lesbian voices  within the women’s movement.  Two years later, O’Leary and Bruce Voeller, then executive director of the National Gay Task Force (NGTF), negotiated an agreement for co-gender management of the national gay  movement and O’Leary joined Voeller as co-executive director of NGTF. I had the opportunity of working with Jean on a number of gay civil rights and activist projects in that crucial '70s decade for the lesbian and gay movement -- Jean had been a nun, but we quickly forgave her that, and I remember her with great fondness as a tireless, creative, and good-humored comrade and friend.

Feminist leader Gloria Steinem, who worked often with O’Leary, issued this statement: "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. I  know she will be with us as long as we remember what she taught us, but I and thousands of others will always miss her spirit." Well said, Gloria.

In her role at NGTF, and through her close friendship with PresidentiaNyiwy02l advisor Midge Costanza, in 1977 O’Leary organized the historic first-ever meeting of gay rights advocates in the White House.  (The photo left shows, l. to r., Jean and my old friend Midge Costanza at a women's action in 1977). She was also the first openly gay person appointed to a Presidential  commission, by President Jimmy Carter, who named her to the  National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year.  In that role, she negotiated the inclusion of gay and lesbian rights on  the agenda of the International Women’s Year conference held in Houston  in 1979. In the 1980s, Jean founded National Gay Rights Advocates (NGRA).  As head of NGRA, O’Leary pursued “impact litigation” and won important  victories protecting gay people from discrimination in employment,  housing and other areas.  In1985 NGRA became one of the first advocacy  organizations to focus on the legal and civil liberties ramifications of the AIDS epidemic.

Sean Strub, founder of POZ Magazine, said after Jean's death, “Jean’s activism spanned so many movements:  the women’s movement, gay and lesbian rights, AIDS  activism as well as Democratic party politics. [Jean was a member of the Democratic National Committee for 12 years.]Her early AIDS activism  through NGRA, particularly in expediting access to new treatments,  saved many lives.   Her passing is a loss for all people who are ill, disadvantaged or suffering, and all people who treasure justice.”

I join with all those who have a special thought for Jean O'Leary as she leaves us. The importance of her contribution to helping create an ever-larger public, cultural, and political space for lesbian and gay people, as she was a key figure in the early days of the modern movement, cannot be overstated. We are all in her debt. (A collection of Jean's papers from the '70s is on deposit at Cornell University's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Thanks to Shana Krochmal for e-mailing me an extensive bio of Jean, from which I have condensed a few crucial details. A longer bio of Jean can be found at the online LGBTQ encyclopedia. For info on the memorial service for Jean being planned for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, write Shana at [email protected])

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