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This secret lesbian couple organised the first-ever White House meeting on LGBT+ rights, changing the path of equality forever

Matilda Davies December 25, 2020
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Jean O'Leary and Midge Costanza

Jean O'Leary and Midge Costanza were in a secret relationship in the '70s (National Archives/Getty)

On 26 March, 1977, a couple of lesbian feminist activists in a secret relationship pulled off an incredible lovers’ plot: holding the first-ever meeting on LGBT+ rights at the White House.

When Jean O’Leary, co-executive director of the National Gay Task Force, was asked by writer Eric Marcus how she managed to get a meeting at the White House, she recalled: “I had a lot of contacts with the White House, actually. Our main contact was Midge Costanza, who I had worked with… we had built a very good relationship.  And when she got in the White House, I called her up and I said: ‘It’s time Midge.  It’s time.'”

Off the record, she would tell a different story.

“She told me to turn off my tape recorder,” said Marcus. “And then Jean said: ‘I rolled over in bed and said: ‘Midge, we’re going to the White House.’

O’Leary and Constanza never got the chance to tell their truth to the world. As special assistant to president Jimmy Carter (the first woman to serve in such a role) Constanza was forced to remain in the closet by her position, and the couple’s relationship would remain a secret for many years, emerging after both had passed.

Jean O’Leary had, as a young woman, entered a convent to train as a nun, but left to pursue lesbian feminist activism. In 1976, she became the co-executive director of the National Gay Task Force. She was one of only three out delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

O’Leary met Costanza when she needed help trying to get the Democratic National Convention to include gay rights in the party platform, something that was initially blocked by Carter.

The couple organised the meeting with 12 gay rights leaders from across the country. Costanza was repeatedly asked if she had cleared the meeting with Carter. She simply responded that it was on a public calendar and his staff likely would have alerted him.

At the meeting, leaders discussed federal anti-discrimination legislation for a number of public offices and government departments. It garnered widespread media attention, with headlines such as “White House backs gay rights”, as the office was perceived to be taking LGBT+ equality seriously for the first time.

Among the meeting’s attendees was Frank Kameny, a co-founder of NGTF, who led the first gay rights picket outside the White House in the ’60s.

On his arrival, Costanza said to Kameny: “I’m really glad to meet you finally. I’m just sorry that it has taken so long to come into a house that belongs to you as much as it belongs to anyone in this country.”

Another attendee, gay rights lobbyist George Raya, remembered: “We all worked very hard to prepare for the meeting with White House staff.

“Each of us was assigned a federal agency. Our assignment was to prepare a white paper that made recommendations to the federal government to better serve gays and lesbians.

“One of the biggest thrills in my life was getting into a taxi that morning and telling the driver: ‘To the west gate of the White House, please.'”

Costanza and O’Leary split in 1980, but remained friends and continued to push for LGBT+ rights in politics. O’Leary died in 2005, followed by Costanza in 2010.

Since Costanza and O’Leary pushed through that first meeting, the National Gay Task Force (now the National LGBTQ+ Task Force) has worked with the White House to make monumental leaps forward in LGBT+ rights. These include the legislation of marriage equality, the passage of a new Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and the overturning of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Discussing the meeting with Marcus in 1989, O’Leary said: “For gay people who are looking for signs, for symbols, for stature, for recognition, for anything along those lines that in those days would make the lifestyle valid, it was a wonderful breakthrough.”

 

 

Related topics: democratic national convention, jean o'leary, Jimmy Carter, midge costanza, national gay task force, White House

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