In a previous post, I noted that, as his nation prepared to vote on a referendum recognizing same-sex unions, a Swiss blogger wrote that the “change of attitude regarding gays and lesbians in the western world is quite extraordinary.” I became aware yet again of how extraordinary that change is when I read yesterday in the LA Times of the death at 57 of Jean O’Leary, “a pioneering lesbian activist.” When an activist described as “pioneering” dies at such a young age, we see how quickly attitudes have changed.
Not only was she the first openly gay delegate to a national party convention, the Democratic National Convention in 1976, but the following year, she was also the firstly openly gay appointee to a presidential commission. Today, barely thirty years later, there have been numerous openly gay delegates at both parties’ conventions. And presidents of both parties have appointed openly gay individuals to commissions as well as other positions of responsibility in the federal government.
It is always sad when someone dies, particularly someone as young as Ms. O’Leary. I did not know her, but reading about her here and here, sense that her activism helped pave the way for the social transformation which has made life easier for all of us. And while I may not share her politics, I do acknowledge her groundbreaking work — as well as that of many others like her on the left.
We have seen many changes for the better since Jean O’Leary organized Lesbian Feminist Liberation in 1973. As we mourn her loss, we are grateful that she had the courage to speak out when it really did take courage to speak out as a lesbian (or gay man for that matter). Let that courage be an inspiration to us all–the legacy of this pioneering activist.