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Jean O’Leary: From nun to lesbian activist

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Jean O'Leary

Jean O’Leary: From nun to lesbian activist

While most lesbian activists were writers or artists or teachers, Jean O’Leary was unique in that she was a Roman Catholic nun before becoming an activist.

However, the Roman Catholic Church’s loss was the LGBT community’s gain as Jean not only organized the first White House meeting of gay rights leaders, she also helped create National Coming Out Day.

Jean O’Leary: Making a mark on the world

Born on March 4, 1948 in Kingston, New York, Jean came from a devout Roman Catholic family and attended Catholic schools while growing up in Cleveland, Ohio.

Jean wanted to make “an impact on the world” so she entered the convent of the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Mary after high school in 1966.

After graduating from Cleveland State University with a degree in Psychology, she left the convent in 1970 to pursue a doctorate in organizational development at Yeshiva University in New York.

It was while she was there that she became involved in the rising gay rights movement, joining the Gay Activists Alliance.

Jean O’Leary: Making her voice heard

Unfortunately, Jean felt that women weren’t being given a voice in the male-dominated group so she– together with other women– left to found the Lesbian Feminist Liberation, one of the first lesbian activist groups.

What’s more, she joined with a former leader of the Alliance– Bruece Voeller– to help set up the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force as co-executive director.

While fighting for the repeal of sodomy laws and for the benefit of those with AIDS, Jean was also active in Democratic politics and was one of three openly gay delegates sent to the National Convention in 1976.

She also chaired the Democratic National Committee’s Gay and Lesbian Caucus from 1992 to 2002.

While working with Midge Costanza, the special assistant to then-President Jimmy Carter, Jean organized the first White House meeting of gay and lesbian leaders in March 1977.

In her opening remarks at the historic meeting, she said: “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.”

Jean O’Leary: Helping others come out

It was in 1988 when Jean– together with Rob Eichberg– helped to establish the first National Coming Out Day, which was designed for gay and lesbians to enable them to publicly declare their sexuality.

On June 4, 2007, she died of lung cancer at the age of 57. She was survived by her partner Lisa Phelps, and their two children.

Noted feminist Gloria Steinem said in a statement that Jean “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.”

For a look in the past, check out the video below of Jean speaking during the the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day:

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