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Ex-Nun Champions Gay Rights : Jean O'Leary Directs New West Hollywood Law Office

August 09, 1987|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

Bobby, the lead singer in a teen-age rock band, had plans for his drummer, Jean O'Leary. He intended to marry her once they were graduated from their Catholic high school in Cleveland.

Bobby had competition, however. In her graduation speech, O'Leary announced that she would be entering the convent.

Her high school friends who had known her as an irreverent rock 'n' roller were shocked at the turn O'Leary had taken. But O'Leary's life was to take still another twist that Bobby and the others couldn't have foreseen.

At 20, she left the convent and moved to Greenwich Village where she became embroiled in radical gay and lesbian politics. Today, at 38, Los Angeles resident O'Leary is among the nation's most prominent gay activists.

She is executive director of National Gay Rights Advocates, a nonprofit law firm protecting gay rights. The San Francisco-based firm recently opened a West Hollywood office.

Aggressive defenders of the rights of AIDS patients, the NGRA most recently filed a major lawsuit against several federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, calling for fair and speedy access to drugs for acquired immune deficiency syndrome patients.

"Jean is unrelenting where she feels there is an issue that needs attention," said Midge Costanza, a former aide to President Carter and now a political activist living in Los Angeles. "I'm awed by her power, her persuasiveness and her ability to deal with political leaders."

Among the high points of O'Leary's 18-year career as a fighter for gay rights: She organized the first meeting of gays in the White House. The 1977 gathering brought gay issues to national attention and led to a series of talks between gay representatives and key federal agencies including the State and Justice departments.

The first openly gay person to be appointed to a presidential commission, O'Leary also was responsible for putting gay rights on the agenda at the International Women's Year meetings in Houston. More recently, she guided the 15,000-member NGRA organization to legal victories in areas such as AIDS discrimination and employment discrimination.

Her Home Life

The dual influences shaping this activist were her 4 1/2 years in the convent ("They gave me the notion of working for a goal higher than the individual, but never losing sight of the individual") and her family. O'Leary talked about both influences in the North Hollywood home she shares with her lover, a performing artist, and her lover's 17-year-old son.

From the time O'Leary was 6, her mother was almost completely immobilized by polio, yet succeeded from a wheelchair in rearing O'Leary and her three siblings. It was in observing strangers' reactions to her disabled mother (who died five years ago), that O'Leary first saw that people who are perceived as different are often targets of discrimination.

O'Leary said her willingness to tackle controversial issues comes from having "a loving family and loving parents. My family was not one without obstacles," she said, "but we faced them as a family and we got through them."

Jim O'Leary, Jean's father, lives in Cleveland. He said that when his daughter first came out to her family, "there was a shock wave that set in initially. I kidded my wife--'It's not my side of the family. . . .' "

After the initial announcement, he said, the family (Jean's two brothers and a sister are now married, with children) slowly came to support the activist's highly visible life style.

Said Jim O'Leary: "Jean and I have always been compatible. We're a very strong family."

O'Leary said she knew from the time she was in the third grade that she was somehow more drawn to girls than boys, but it wasn't until much later that she deciphered what this might mean to her and to the world around her.

She entered the convent at 16 with the conviction that she had a true calling. In the 1984 anthology, "Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence," which caused an uproar in the Catholic church, O'Leary explained her reasons for joining a religious order: "There was no anti-war movement, no women's movement, no gay movement in Ohio in 1966. I wanted to do something special, to have an impact on my world.

"In the convent at night I was gay. In the morning--no way," O'Leary said. She attempted to explain her feelings to a priest, but he assured her she could not possibly be homosexual. After covertly studying homosexuality in psychology journals in the priest's house, she left the order.

O'Leary had read in a Cosmopolitan magazine article that gays congregated in Greenwich Village, so that became her destination upon leaving the convent.

"I jumped right into the movement with both feet," she said.

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