Profiles of LGBT people, from the past and today – and celebrating their birthdays! All Birthdays →

Jean O'Leary

A long-time activist whose work had a national impact, Jean O’Leary was raised in Cleveland and attended Catholic schools. Deeply influenced by the nuns who taught her, she entered the Order of the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Mary in 1966 so that, as she recalled later, she could “do something special, have an impact on the world.” Becoming aware of her attraction to women, she left the Order five years later and moved to New York City, where a new gay liberation movement was thriving. She joined the Gay Activists Alliance, but left because of the sexism she experienced, and helped found Lesbian Feminist Liberation. She later became co-executive director of the National Gay Task Force and, and in 1976 was one of just three openly gay or lesbian delegates to the Democratic National Convention. After Jimmy Carter’s election, O’Leary helped arrange in March 1977 the first meeting of gay and lesbian activists with White House staff. She later served as executive director of National Gay Rights Advocates, which took on legal cases involving employment discrimination, AIDS, and other issues. In 1988, O’Leary helped found National Coming Out Day, which went on to become a major organizing tool to increase LGBT visibility. O’Leary died on June 4, 2005, after a long battle with lung cancer. She was survived by her partner, Lisa Phelps.