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Jean O’Leary, 57; Groundbreaking Lesbian Activist

Times Staff Writer

Jean O’Leary, a pioneering lesbian activist who helped raise discussion of gay equality to a national level through a historic White House meeting in 1977 and who battled for gay rights in employment and on other fronts, died Saturday of lung cancer in San Clemente. She was 57.

In 1976, O’Leary, a former nun, was the first openly lesbian delegate at a Democratic National Convention. She brought a delegation of gay and lesbian advocates to a meeting with Carter administration officials in 1977, and later became the first openly gay appointee to a presidential commission.

She also headed a number of prominent gay and lesbian organizations, including the group that became the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Later, as executive director of National Gay Rights Advocates in the 1980s, she led several important battles against AIDS and employment discrimination, including a lawsuit against Pacific Bell that resulted in a precedent-setting $3-million compensation award for gay job applicants and employees.

She later ran her own political consulting firm in Los Angeles, O’Leary and Associates. She also served eight years as chair of the Democratic Party’s Gay and Lesbian Caucus and 12 years as a member of the Democratic National Committee.

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“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,” feminist icon Gloria Steinem said in a statement Sunday.

Born in Kingston, N.Y., and raised in Cleveland, O’Leary attended parochial schools from third grade through high school. Independent and rebellious, she was the drummer for a teenage band and was suspended from school several times for pulling pranks.

In her senior year she shocked fellow students by announcing her decision to enter a convent. She joined a liberal order of teachers and nurses, the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Mary, in Ohio. She believed that she had a calling to be a nun, but later realized that the convent was an escape from an uncomfortable awareness she’d had since grade school that she preferred the company of women.

“I thought that if I dedicated my life to God, I could get rid of my feelings for women,” she said in “Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence,” a 1985 book by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan that devoted a chapter to O’Leary’s story.

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Instead, she had her first affair with a woman -- a fellow postulant. When she told a senior nun that she had intimate relations with other nuns -- delicately referred to as “particular friendships” -- the sister “kissed me on the mouth and said, ‘What you have to do is stay and try to be celibate.’ ”

O’Leary decided that she could not live with the “inherent conflict,” and in 1971, nearly five years after entering the convent, rejoined the outside world.

Having read in a magazine that Greenwich Village was a center of gay life, she moved to New York City and “jumped right into the [gay rights] movement with both feet.”

In the convent she had earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Cleveland State University. In New York, she pursued graduate studies in organizational management at Yeshiva University.

She also became a member of the Gay Activists Alliance, but quickly grew frustrated with the male leadership, which shut out lesbians and generally ignored their issues. She left in 1973 and took most of the other women members with her to form Lesbian Feminist Liberation.

Two years later, she reconciled with the man who had been her antagonist in the alliance -- its former president, Bruce Voeller, who had left the group to found the National Gay Task Force (later renamed the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force). At a time when gay men and lesbians were still uneasy political partners, Voeller took the unusual step of recommending that O’Leary be named the task force’s co-executive director with him.

At the 1976 Democratic convention, she worked with Midge Costanza and Virginia Apuzzo to incorporate gay rights language into the party platform. Although the effort failed, the Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter, won the election and made Costanza a special assistant.

Soon after, O’Leary contacted Costanza to request a meeting on gay rights in the White House.

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“This is the first time in the history of this country a president has seen fit to acknowledge the rights and needs of some 20 million Americans,” O’Leary said at a press conference following the meeting, at which she and other activists discussed gay issues in healthcare and the military and discriminatory laws.

“Because of this historic gathering,” Costanza said Sunday, “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.”

In 1981, O’Leary became executive director of the National Gay Rights Advocates, a nonprofit law firm. Before leaving that post eight years later after a dispute over fundraising and staff morale, she helped establish National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, 1988.

Decades after leaving the convent, she said her life of activism was her true calling.

“I wanted to affect this world,” she said, “not remove myself from it.”

She is survived by her partner of 12 years, Lisa Phelps; their daughter, Victoria; a son, David De Maria; a grandson, Aiden De Maria; a sister, Diane Urig; two brothers, Jim and Ken; and nieces and nephews.


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