Born in Kingston, New York and raised in Ohio, in 1966, just out of high school, O'Leary entered the novitiate of the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Mary, in order to "have an impact on the world." After graduating from Cleveland State University with a Psychology degree, she left the convent in 1970 before completing the period of training, and would later write about her experience in a 1984 anthology, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence. She moved to New York City and did doctoral work at Yeshiva University.
At the time, she became involved with the nascent gay rights movement, joining the Gay Activists' Alliance (GAA) Chapter in Brooklyn and later lobbying state politicians. In 1972, she left the male-dominated GAA and founded Lesbian Feminist Liberation, one of the first lesbian activist groups in the women's movement. Two years later, she joined the National Gay Task Force, negotiating gender parity in its executive with director Bruce Voeller and joining as co-executive director.
In 1977 she organized the first meeting of gay rights activists in the White House through arrangements made with White House staffer Midge Costanza. She was the first openly gay person appointed to a presidential commission, the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year, by Jimmy Carter. In this role she negotiated for gay and lesbian rights to be included on the discussion in a conference marking the year in Houston, Texas.
She was the first openly lesbian delegate to a national political convention, attending the Democratic convention in 1976, and served on the Democratic National Committee for 12 years, 8 of those on the Executive Committee, another first.
During the early 1980s she focused on building National Gay Rights Advocates, then one of the largest national gay and lesbian rights groups. It was one of the first to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic's implications for legal and civil liberties, using aggressive litigation to ensure AIDS patients' access to treatment.
She co-founded National Coming Out Day with Rob Eichberg in 1987.
She died in San Clemente, California of lung cancer, aged 57. She was survived by her partner Lisa Phelps, their daughter Victoria, their son David de Maria, his life partner James Springer, and David and James' son Aiden de Maria.
GAA had no staff, but it had a fine sense of theater and a knack for gaining the attention of the media. "It was really the ACT UP of its time," said Ethan Geto. "So Voeller founded the NGTF, and he and Jean O'Leary became the first co-executive directors. It was in New York at 8o Fifth Ave. Morty Manford and my crowd were on the GAA side." --Charles Kaiser. The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America (Kindle Locations 3793-3795). Kindle Edition.Further Readings:
Stonewall [Illustrated] by Martin Bauml Duberman
Reading level: Ages 18 and up
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Plume (May 1, 1994)
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On June 28th, 1969, the Stonewall, a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village, was raided. But instead of the routine compliance expected by the police, patrons and a growing crowd decided to fight back. The five days of rioting that ensued changed forever the face of gay and lesbian life. This book tells the story of what happened at Stonewall, recreating those nights in detail through the lives of six people who were drawn into the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. Their stories combine into a portrait of the repression that led up to the riots, which culminates when they triumphantly participate in the first gay rights march of 1970.
Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America by Lillian Faderman
Paperback: 373 pages
Publisher: Columbia University Press; Reprint edition (February 14, 2012)
Amazon: Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America
As Lillian Faderman writes, there are "no constants with regard to lesbianism," except that lesbians prefer women. In this groundbreaking book, she reclaims the history of lesbian life in twentieth-century America, tracing the evolution of lesbian identity and subcultures from early networks to more recent diverse lifestyles. She draws from journals, unpublished manuscripts, songs, media accounts, novels, medical literature, pop culture artifacts, and oral histories by lesbians of all ages and backgrounds, uncovering a narrative of uncommon depth and originality.
The Riddle of Gender by Deborah Rudacille
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Anchor (February 14, 2006)
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When Deborah Rudacille learned that a close friend had decided to transition from female to male, she felt compelled to understand why.
Coming at the controversial subject of transsexualism from several angles–historical, sociological, psychological, medical–Rudacille discovered that gender variance is anything but new, that changing one’s gender has been met with both acceptance and hostility through the years, and that gender identity, like sexual orientation, appears to be inborn, not learned, though in some people the sex of the body does not match the sex of the brain.
Informed not only by meticulous research, but also by the author’s interviews with prominent members of the transgender community, The Riddle of Gender is a sympathetic and wise look at a sexual revolution that calls into question many of our most deeply held assumptions about what it means to be a man, a woman, and a human being.