Volume four, Issue 23 | June 09 - 15, 2005


Jean O’Leary Is Dead at 57

A towering figure in queer activism, Democratic Party politics, was first a Catholic nun

Lesbian activist Jean O’Leary, a former nun who became a national leader in the Democratic Party, died June 4 at home with her partner of 12 years, Lisa Phelps, in San Clemente, California.

O’Leary, who battled lung cancer for the past two years, was also surrounded by her family and other close friends in her final hours.

She was 57.

In her work as a Democratic Party activist, O’Leary was a consistent advocate for the rights of gay men and lesbians, women and people living with HIV/AIDS. In a career in public life that spanned 35 years, she ran several national gay rights groups, co-founded pioneering organizations, including Lesbian Feminist Liberation and the group behind National Coming Out Day, and worked to elect Democratic candidates.

Jean Marie O’Leary was born on March 4, 1948, in Kingston, New York, but was raised mostly in Ohio. In a speech she delivered at her high school graduation in 1966, O’Leary announced that she was entering the Sisters of the Holy Humility Convent. In a 1984 anthology, “Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence,” O’Leary said she joined the convent because “there was no anti-war movement, no women’s movement, no gay movement in Ohio in 1966” and that she “wanted to do something special, to have an impact on the world.”

O’Leary graduated from Cleveland State University with a degree in psychology in 1970, left the convent and became the drummer for a girl band, The Satin Dolls, before moving to New York to pursue doctoral studies in organizational development at Yeshiva University. In New York, she became enmeshed in the emerging gay and lesbian rights movement, joining the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), attending their meetings and social events at the Firehouse in Soho and driving once a week to Albany to lobby state legislators on gay issues.

In 1972, frustrated with what she viewed as 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.

Feminist leader Gloria Steinem, who often worked with O’Leary, issued a statement this week about her friend.

“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,” Steinem’s statement read. “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.”

In her role at NGTF, and through her close friendship with Midge Costanza, an advisor to Pres. Jimmy Carter, in 1977 O’Leary organized the historic first-ever meeting of gay rights advocates in the White House. She was also the first openly gay person appointed to a presidential commission, when Carter appointed 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.

Costanza, who was with O’Leary at the time of her death, said: “I will always remember Jean’s first call to me at the White House requesting a meeting with the president…. Because of this historic gathering of gay and lesbian leaders in the White House, a national discussion was held to review and begin to correct the anti-gay policies by federal government agencies. Many changes were made, and many doors were opened as a result of Jean’s perseverance.”

O’Leary was also active in Democratic Party politics, including her election in 1976 as the first-ever openly lesbian delegate to a national political convention. She served on the Democratic National Committee for 12 years, including eight on that group’s Executive Committee, the first openly gay or lesbian person to serve in that capacity.

O’Leary spent most of the 1980s building a local San Francisco group, Gay Rights Advocates, into one of the largest national gay and lesbian activist organizations, 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. In 1985, 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, “Jean’s activism spanned so many movements… 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.”

Bob Hattoy, an AIDS advocate who spoke on the issue at the 1992 Democratic Convention and later worked in the Clinton administration, recalled O’Leary’s impact on addressing the leadership rift between gay men and lesbians in the movement.

“Jean taught gay men about feminism, she taught lesbians about AIDS, she taught feminists about gay and lesbian issues and she taught Democrats about everything,” Hattoy said. “She personified the use of power with grace and purpose.”

In 1987, the Los Angeles Times referred to NGRA as “aggressive defenders of the rights of AIDS patients” and noted litigation against the several federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, which the group initiated to expedite and broaden the access of people with HIV to promising new treatments.

In founding National Coming Out Day with psychologist Rob Eichberg in 1987, O’Leary noted that “coming out is critically important to our community and to our movement. Our invisibility is the essence of our oppression. And until we eliminate that invisibility, people are going to be able to perpetuate the lies and myths about gay people.”

In recent years, O’Leary, with her business partner, Palm Springs City Councilmember Ginny Foat, ran a consulting firm specializing in voter contact and candidate consulting.

In addition to her life partner Lisa Phelps, and their daughter Victoria, O’Leary is survived by their son David De Maria, his life partner James Springer, and their son Aiden DeMaria. She is also survived by her brothers, Jim O’Leary and Ken O’Leary, sister Diane Urig, and nieces and nephews.

Phelps said, “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. She set an example of community involvement for our 15-year-old daughter Victoria and instilled in her the importance of political activism.”

Jean O’Leary’s family and friends contributed to writing this remembrance.

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