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O'Leary's toughest fight: Jean O'Leary isn't letting her diagnosis of terminal lung cancer dampen her renowned passion for politics and gay rights.

When Jean O'Leary received a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer last September, she was shocked. An MRI scan revealed metastasized cancer of her lung, and the Los Angeles resident, who turns 56 on March 4, was given six to 18 months to live. "I'd just gotten a clean bill of health--blood pressure low, cholesterol low," O'Leary says, fighting back tears during a recent interview with The Advocate. "But I've been doing megadoses of chemotherapy, and it has definitely had an impact."

Best known for organizing the first-ever meeting between gay leaders and the White House, O'Leary has had a long career as a pioneering lesbian feminist and Democratic Party activist. And despite the diagnosis, she intends to keep working this political season, noting that "it should be a very exciting year." She continues to run O'Leary and Associates, a political consulting firm in Los Angeles's Van Nuys district, counting among her recent successes the election of Ginny Feat as the first out lesbian member of the Palm Springs, Calif., city council.

O'Leary's early life hardly foreshadowed the often controversial activist and political strategist she would become. She was born in Kingston, N.Y., and her family moved around a lot, finally settling in Ohio. Feeling that she had a religious calling but subconsciously dreaming of "an island of women," she joined the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Mary convent in Ohio in 1966 and subsequently took her vows as a nun. While there, she also attended Cleveland State University and graduated with a degree in psychology in 1970.

It was during her four "deeply spiritual" years at the convent that O'Leary came out. "I don't want to make it sound like a hotbed of lesbianism," she says, "but I did have a number of relationships." Her story later became a much-discussed chapter in the book Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence.

After leaving the convent, O'Leary, moved to New York City to study for a doctorate in organizational development at Yeshiva University around 1971. During that time, she briefly joined the male-dominated Gay Activists Alliance, headed by the strong-willed Bruce Voeller. Angered that her complaints about lesbian "invisibility" were too easily dismissed, O'Leary organized an exodus of all the women from the GAA and founded Lesbian Feminist Liberation.

But O'Leary was a pragmatist and subsequently felt "confined by lesbian separatist mores." So she approached Voeller, who had since become head of the National Gay Task Force. "I told him it was time to put our differences aside because we had a lot of work to do and I thought we'd make a great team," O'Leary says. The two became the first co-executive directors of the NGTF, now known as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Soon after joining the NGTF, O'Leary contacted Midge Costanza, a special assistant to President Jimmy Carter. "I called her up and said, 'It's time. We want to have a meeting in the White House,'" she remembers. The meeting was granted, and O'Leary handpicked a team of gay men and lesbians, including Frank Kameny, the Reverend Troy Perry, and Massachusetts state legislator Elaine Noble, to address gay rights issues.

"This is the first time in the history of figs country that a president has seen fit to acknowledge the rights and needs of some 20 million Americans," O'Leary said in her opening remarks at the three-hour meeting on March 26, 1977. "We are highly optimistic that it will soon lead to complete fulfillment of President Carter's pledge to end all forms of federal discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation." Indeed, the meeting, widely covered by the media, led to other White House-ordered meetings with the heads of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, among other departments. (HEW is now the Department of Health and Human Services.) "If Carter had been there when the AIDS crisis came up," she argues, "it would have been a whole different story. It could have been treated like a legitimate disease."

Later that year, O'Leary also raised the stakes for lesbian feminists. At the highly publicized National Women's Conference in Houston in November 1977, O'Leary organized enough support to force passage of a resolution supporting nondiscrimination with regard to sexual orientation. "Ms. magazine touted it as the first time ever that the lesbian issue was made an official part of the feminist movement," she says.

In 1981, O'Leary became executive director of National Gay Rights Advocates and helped make it the largest gay organization in the country. The nonprofit public interest law firm, founded in the late '70s by University of Southern California law professor Don Knutson and journalist Richard Rouilard (later, The Advocate's editor in chief in the early '90s), won the precedent-setting discrimination case Gay Law Students Association v. Pacific Telephone & Telegraph in 1987 with a $3 million compensation award, the largest single financial settlement in gay litigation history at the time. But O'Leary says her political bent caused clashes with the legal staff, and she resigned in December 1989. In May 1991, NGRA closed its doors.

In 1988 she cofounded National Coming Out Day with Rob Eichberg, founder of the gay self-help group the Experience, popular in the late '70s and '80s; the event's launch was announced on Oprah Winfrey's television show. (National Coming Out Day has since become a program of the Human Rights Campaign.)

O'Leary also has been actively involved in the Democratic Party since 1976. She was chair of the party's Gay and Lesbian Caucus for eight years and served as a member of the Democratic National Committee for 12. And she remains politically active through her membership in the Los Angeles-based fund-raising group Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality. "I think the Democratic Party is malting a valiant attempt [to challenge Bush] with some fresh blood," she says. "If there's anything to give us a chance to defeat the incumbent, it will be this surge of energy and the involvement of brand new people.

"I think George Bush is one of the most duplicitous presidents we've ever had," O'Leary continues. "You can't believe a word he says. Time after time he's lied to us. And here he is, close to $200 million for a primary, and he doesn't even have an opponent." On Bush's stance against gay marriage, she says, "I was appalled and shocked that Bush used the State of the Union to attack same-sex marriages and indicated that he would support a constitutional amendment. I truly hope that saner minds will prevail--even on the Republican side of the aisle--and this constitutional amendment will not see the light of day. I cannot believe that the American people and the people they elected would use the Constitution to stifle any group's rights. However, we will fight if it comes to that."

It's this type of passion for gay rights that has defined O'Leary's long career, and she's the first to admit it. "I've been a very effective leader in the gay rights movement, though at times I've been controversial," she says. "I'm doing things that give me pleasure now. I want to keep myself healthy so I can do all the things I want to do."

Ocamb is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Activism
Author:Ocamb, Karen
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 2, 2004
Words:1205
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