Jean O'Leary March 4, 1948-2005
In 1972, frustrated with the sexism of the male-dominated Gay Activists Alliance, 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
In her role at NGTF, and through her close friendship with Carter Administration Presidential advisor Midge Costanza, 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, 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. In 1985 NGRA became one of the first advocacy organizations to focus on the legal and civil liberties ramifications of the AIDS epidemic.
Jean O'Leary died of lung cancer in 2005. 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.”