Revisiting the Archive — Episode 13 — Larah Helayne & Jean O’Leary

Larah Helayne, November 2019. Credit: Natasha Raichel Photography.

Episode Notes

When high schooler Larah Helayne heard MGH’s episode with Jean O’Leary, it changed the course of her life. Plans to become a nun gave way for a new role as an LGBTQ trailblazer. In this season finale, we celebrate the history-makers who came before and those who follow in their footsteps.

Visit the webpages for our Season Two episodes with Jean O’Leary—part 1 and part 2—for background information, archival photos, and other resources.

Read about Larah Helayne in TIME magazine here. Larah is also an accomplished musician, composer, and singer. Listen to her TEDx presentation and performance about how Appalachian music helped Larah plant roots and learn to love her home. Hear more of Larah’s music on her YouTube channel.

Episode Transcript

Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus and this is Making Gay History. 

Three months ago, when I first shut myself in the guest room closet to revisit the Making Gay History archive with you, I had no idea what the future held. It was my way of trying to make sense of a new and frightening situation, and to draw inspiration, strength, and joy from the voices of our LGBTQ past.

I don’t know if anyone could have imagined how dark the dark times ahead would be. Or how hopeful. It’s been head-spinning—the ongoing devastation of the pandemic, the persistent failure of the federal government to prioritize the health of millions, the murder of George Floyd, and the mass uprising that’s followed, the Trump administration’s shameful rollback of healthcare protections for trans people, and the extraordinary protest in Brooklyn this past Sunday when 15,000 people came out in support of black trans lives. And now, this week, a truly landmark decision—a six-to-three majority from the Supreme Court banning discrimination of LGBTQ people in employment. One can only imagine what the months ahead will bring. Well, I can’t imagine. But I have hope.

So this feels like the right time to step back from revisiting the archive and start work on producing the next two seasons of Making Gay History. For LGBT History Month this coming October we’ll be partnering with the Studs Terkel Archive in Chicago to share with you interviews that you’ve likely never heard before. And then a year from now we’ll be launching a special season about the AIDS crisis to mark the 40th anniversary of the publication of the first article in the New York Times about a mysterious disease affecting a small group of gay men. 

But before all that, I’d like to share with you one more story that gives me hope. It’s a story that reminds me of the power that our ancestors’ voices have to inspire a new generation of young people to pick up the ball and make their own LGBTQ history—to dream bigger and reach higher.

But this episode comes with a catch. Well, an ask. Like most nonprofits, we’re facing a challenging time raising enough funds to keep doing what we do. Fortunately, right now we have a $50,000 challenge grant from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. This means that all new donations will be matched dollar for dollar. We’ve already raised $10,000 toward that match. And we’d welcome your help in raising another $40,000 to unlock the rest of the grant.

You can do that by going to makinggayhistory.org/support. That’s makinggayhistory.org/support. Or just go to makinggayhistory.com and click on the donation button. 

But before you decide whether to join the Making Gay History community and support our mission to bring LGBTQ history to life through the voices of the people who lived it, I suggest you wait until after you hear from Larah Helayne and the Making Gay History story that changed her life. 

Have a listen.

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Larah Helayne: When I was 17, about a year and a half ago, I fell madly in love with another girl for the first time, and I was terrified. It’s a difficult situation for any young person, but it was especially complicated for me because, from the age of about 12, I was really set on becoming a nun. I knew even then that I was gay and I decided that the easiest way to escape both marrying a man and the flames of hell was to join a convent.

So I invested myself in that idea, as did everyone else in my life, and this made coming out incredibly difficult because I knew that I was going to lose everything. I was paralyzed by fear—until the fates would have it that I found Making Gay History and I heard Jean O’Leary story. Jean was one of the co-founders of National Coming Out Day, one of the co-founders of the National Lesbian Taskforce, and so many other things, and like me, she had seriously considered becoming a nun, going so far as to even join a convent—and having multiple affairs while in there.

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EM Narration: Before you hear the impact that Jean O’Leary had on Larah and her plans to become a nun, let’s hear from Jean O’Leary herself from part one of that 1989 interview, which took place over lunch at The Ivy restaurant on the border of Los Angeles and West Hollywood. Here’s Jean.

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Jean O’Leary: The convent was great. It was one of the best experiences of my life on every single level. When I got there, I wasn’t there for more than six months when I really did come out. And so I came out sexually. Emotionally it was incredible. We had a priest who was a therapist, who came in and ran sensitivity groups. And if you want to talk about living in a closed environment and being in sensitivity groups and sort of stripping down the defenses and then going away and living with these same people for 24 hours a day, day in and day out. We were on a villa at the novitiate. And so we didn’t go off that villa either. So the intensity was really intense. We were up to all hours of the night. We would go smoke in the cafeteria. Or, you know, do whatever. And I was always in love. I had like eight relationships when I was in there.

Eric Marcus: Oh, my God.

JO: I know, God was an innocent bystander. In fact, I had an affair with a postulant mistress, which was a very deep affair. At the same time I was having an affair with Bunnie and the priest was involved with the both of them, but not sexually. But it was a real sort of a balancing kind of an act. I went in and told him, I said, “I think I’m a homosexual.” So, anyway, he said, basically, “Well, don’t you think, you know, just because we’re in a same-sex environment, really, and these feelings are just natural and we just have to try to be celibate.” I said, “Great.”

EM: You said…?

JO: I said, fine, you know, but it was so debilitating to me, because I was ready to come out. I was ready to tell the truth and everybody was ready to cover it up again, or he was.

EM: That was your coming out.

JO: It was. Yeah.

EM: Had you even said it verbally to yourself, verbally spoken I mean?

JO: No. No.

EM: You had never spoken the words before.

JO: No. Uh-uh. No. Not with the “I” attached to it. “I am,” you know…

EM: Can you remember, do you remember saying that to him?

JO: Yes!

EM: How vivid is that?

JO: Oh, it’s extremely vivid. And I remember all the feelings afterwards, too. Because it was like, this is it. Then I gotta get out of here because I don’t belong here. I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, but, you know, this is it. And then I tell him and he, like, glosses over the whole thing because he didn’t want to hear it. He said I was a very interesting person, very vivid, very open. And then he wanted to analyze my dreams. And I’m like, “Oh boy.” So I went out and… I remember going out and sitting in this silo. It was empty. And it just was sort of a personification… not a personification, but an emphasis of what I was feeling in terms of the loneliness, the emptiness, the not being heard, the “Oh, my God, I finally said it,” and this is what I get back.

EM: How did you get from that silo?

JO: How did I get from out of it?

EM: Yes.

JO: How did I? I stayed around for a while.

EM: In the silo.

JO: No, in the convent. I don’t remember how long I was in the silo. But I remember coming out and I remember talking to my friend Linda, who was in her dorm, and almost telling her what had happened, but not quite.

EM: You weren’t ready yet.

JO: Uh-uh. Especially now that I’d been saved one more time. Ha. You know? Saved from the truth that I really wanted to… You know, I mean, everybody was in collaboration. It’s like that conspiracy of silence, and even when you’re ready to break out of it, it’s not easy. People don’t want to hear it.

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EM Narration: Jean did make it out of the silo, and the convent. In 1971 she moved to Brooklyn to a studio apartment that came with a male roommate who turned out to be gay. Together they went to their first Gay Activists Alliance meeting and that was the beginning of Jean’s decades-long involvement in the movement.

In the end, Jean had no regrets about leaving the convent. But there were other things she regretted in her life. And you’re about to hear one of those things.

It’s 1973 and Jean is at the Gay Pride Rally in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. By then she’d led a split of the women from the Gay Activists Alliance and formed a new organization called Lesbian Feminist Liberation.

Jean’s group was protesting the rally organizer’s decision to include drag queens as part of the entertainment. While Jean and other LFL members were passing out flyers to the crowd, Sylvia Rivera took the stage and made her now famous speech.

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Sylvia Rivera [1973 audio clip]: You all tell me go and hide my tail between my legs. I will not for longer put up with this shit. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment. For gay liberation. And you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all? Think about that. The people that are trying to do something for all of us and not men and women that belong to a white middle-class white club. And that’s what you all belong to. Revolution now!

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EM Narration: Jean was reluctant to talk about what happened. The Jean I was sitting with outside The Ivy was not proud of what her 25-year-old self had done.

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JO: This is so embarrassing. You’re not going to print this, are you? You know, I hate this, because, you know, oh, well, anyway…

EM: Let me tell you why it’s important. What it shows is the evolution of thought and how we got to where we are now. Why you think the way you do now. And you didn’t come to where you are now without having gone through all of this.

JO: Okay, just so long as you can really put this in context. I will trust you more as we go along.

EM: The whole book… I have to put the whole book in context, because some of the things people did and said, they can’t believe what they said and did.

JO: I know. I mean, this is really something. This was at a time when the sexism was just rampant between men and women in the gay community.

EM: How did the sexism show itself?

JO: Well, it was blatant. The men actually treated women like surrogate mothers, lovers, sisters. The woman’s role should be respected and that’s where you are. There was, uh, very little… few women in leadership positions and they were consciously kept out of them.

Because just as gay people, you know, have to become visible in the society, lesbians had to become visible, because whenever people said “gay,” they always thought about gay men. We sat around, actually, for months and tried to figure out what were the women’s issues that were different from feminist issues, or different from gay issues. And, quite frankly, to this day no one has been able to come up with what those issues are. But it’s a matter of attitude. It’s a matter of positioning. It’s a matter of respect. It’s a matter of power. It’s a matter of all those types of things, which are a little more subtle. And, um, so, what… and visibility, of course, visibility. Just having people realize that there are lesbians in the world and when you say “gay” it has to include gay men and women.

So, I guess the thing with the transvestites—I would never do this now—but in those days, it was like, well, here’s a man dressing up as a woman and wearing all the things that we’re trying to break free of.

EM: Such as?

JO: High heels, girdles, corsets, stockings, you know, all the things that were just sort of binding women. And, um, so we just decided to make a statement.

We stayed up that night and typed up this little statement on the typewriter. We actually worked all night on it and I’m sure it was just some small statement. Because we were knocking out theory at that time. So it wasn’t just like we were, you know, writing off a paragraph of something. We were actually creating theory. The discussion was, well, but there are laws on the books in the state. If a person had on more than three items of clothing of the other person’s sex then they could be called on that. And so they said, well, that must mean the women, and we could all be thrown in jail for cross-dressing and so we really shouldn’t criticize. We should try to kind of support this kind of thing. So then we decided that, okay, well, we’re not going to attack cross-dressing. We’ll attack men who do it for profit as opposed to do it for a statement.

So, Vito Russo was a very good friend of mine. And we had a falling out over this issue but he was still trying to be… trying to accommodate. Actually I think he helped me come up on the stage because I was not scheduled as a scheduled speaker. So I got up there…

EM: On the stage.

JO: On the stage.

EM: In front of how many people?

JO: Oh, I mean, you know, tens of thousands, whatever it was. It wasn’t, you know, the 200,000 we have nowadays, but it was quite a few. And I remember, then I got up there and this is a little hazy. I don’t remember the whole thing. Because you’re in the situation…

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JO [1973 audio clip]: Lesbian Feminist Liberation negotiated for a week and a half using the means that rational women and women have always used in the past, not disruptive means, to try to get up here and read a statement. We were told no, that there would be no political statements read today. Because one person, a man, Sylvia [Rivera], gets up here and causes a ruckus, we are not allowed to read our statement. And I think that says something right there. Now I’d like to go on and speak, but I have written here a statement that’s backed up by a hundred women and this was voted on so I’m just going to read this statement.

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JO: So, I read the statement…

EM: What did you say?

JO: Well, that we at the Lesbian Feminist Liberation protest the cross-dressing of men in women’s clothes for purposes of profit and we wanted to make that statement clear.

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JO [1973 audio clip]: When men impersonate women for reasons of entertainment or profit, they insult women. We support the rights of every person to dress in the way that she or he wishes. But we are opposed to the exploitation of women by men for entertainment or profit. Men have been telling us who we are all our lives. They have tried to do it with scholarship, with religion, with psychiatry. When all else fails, they have used humor to tell us and each other who and what we are. What we object to today is another instance in which men laughing with one another at what they present as women by telling us who they think we are. We don’t want to know. Men have never been able to show us ourselves. We are coming into a time and a place as women in which we can and will show one another who we are. Let men tell each other what they think of women. Let us tell you who we are.

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JO: There was an incredible reaction. A lot of hostility. Men and women started fighting with each other out in the crowd.

EM: Physically or verbally?

JO: There was some physical. There was a lot of verbal. I don’t know what happened after that. I remember leaving.

EM: I can tell you what happened.

JO: Okay, what happened?

EM: Another drag queen got up on the stage who was livid, and referred to you as “those bitches,” I believe.

JO: Maybe that’s what started the fight.

EM: He said, the queens started the Stonewall riot and you’re not going to kick us out of the movement. 

JO: I remember getting off the stage and walking through the crowd. I was alone for some reason. And, um, everybody had gone every which way and I guess we were going to meet over at Bonnie and Clyde’s, which was right around the corner. And we went in there to meet. And I think that’s where we heard that Bette Midler had come down to sort of smooth things over and sing, you know, “You Gotta Be Friends.” And how did that happen? I don’t think I was there to see her actually do that because I don’t recall it. I just was like, “Okay, bye.” It wasn’t that I was running away from it. I really don’t recall. But I remember I was out of there. It’s like I had done my thing and now let’s get out of here. Let’s leave. This is hard.

EM: Looking back on it, why are you embarrassed by that now?

JO: Um, because I have since then, I mean, I’ve gone… During the Anita Bryant campaign, for instance, down in Dade County, Florida, I used to go down there and help them with the campaign. And I’d stay at the Windward Hotel, which was just full of transvestites, transsexuals, wonderful, darling, lovable people that I got to know as people and got to know their lives and their stories. And who they are. Why they were. And, you know, just as you grow older, first of all, you learn more and you mellow in terms of your precision about what has to be exactly right and politically correct.

And right now I have… I like… It’s hard even to be tolerant for myself of exact political correctness. And I know that I went through it and I have to have patience with the people that come up now that are going through the same thing, because it’s a process. It is a process.

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EM Narration: Jean O’Leary died on June 4, 2005. She was 57. We’ll be posting a link in the episode notes to part two of Jean’s story. That’s where you’ll hear about the landmark 1977 White House meeting that Jean organized for gay rights advocates with the help of Midge Costanza, an advisor to President Jimmy Carter. What almost no one knew at the time—and you’ll hear Jean talk about it in the episode—was that Jean and Midge were lovers. But of course Midge couldn’t be out back in 1977 because she would have likely lost her job. 

I remember hearing about that White House meeting in real time—I was in my first year at Vassar College—and I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it because I couldn’t have imagined that we’d actually get a place at the table inside the White House. Instead of just protesting outside the White House gates. When things happen that I couldn’t believe would happen—like that White House meeting and this week’s Supreme Court decision—it gives me fuel for hope.

And young people like Larah Helayne give me so much hope, too. And proud that this podcast, and Jean O’Leary’s voice, has had such an impact on Larah’s life.

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LH: When I heard Jean’s story, I knew that if this woman could find the courage to actually leave a convent, move to New York City, follow her dreams and her love and her true self, and become not just any gay activist, but Jean O’Leary, that I could do what needed to be done in my life. I could come out to my friends and my family, learn to love and accept myself, and then take action to make the world better for those like me.

So that’s exactly what I did. I came out. It was difficult, but it was worth it. And because of that, dozens of my peers and other young people started to confide in me and to come out to me. And that’s when I knew that I had to create a safe space for young gay people in my community.

With the help of a really wonderful French teacher, I started my district’s first successful gay-straight alliance. By the end of this year, we had over 60 members and, with inspiration from Making Gay History, I built an entire curriculum that taught everything from gay history to gay culture to gay slang.

And my life was changed for the better. And so was the lives of everyone else in my GSA. I know for a fact that none of this would be true without Making Gay History, and that this podcast literally changed the course of my life. I would not be half the person or the activist I am today, I definitely wouldn’t have started a GSA or had the courage to come out at all, and I certainly would not be attending college with a major in gender and women’s studies and a focus in LGBTQ studies.

Because of this podcast, I not only found it within myself to come out, live a life that is authentic and true to me, but I got to see other people in my community in the middle-of-nowhere Eastern Kentucky do the same thing. And learn with them and learn from them. And now I am going to spend the rest of my life fighting the fight that has been waged for ages with the inspiration of all the stories that have been told on this podcast.

And I owe so much to it.

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EM Narration: Thank you to Larah Helaye for sharing her story. I wish Jean were here to know what an inspiration she’s been to Larah because she’d be so proud of her and what she’s already accomplished. 

And thank you for listening. I’ll hope that you choose to join the Making Gay History community and support our mission by making a donation at makinggayhistory.org/support. That’s makinggayhistory.org/support. Or just go to makinggayhistory.com and click on the donation button. For those of you who have recently donated, we’re extremely grateful for your support. People like Finn Smith, who just launched the Invisible Strings nonprofit online bookstore, the first queer-focused children’s bookstore in the world. And thank you, as well, to Robert Brown who made a generous donation to support Making Gay History’s work on behalf of Michael Klein. 

And if you haven’t already signed up for our newsletter, go to makinggayhistory.com and subscribe at the bottom of our homepage so you can get the latest on what we have coming up in our next season. 

This “Revisiting the Archive” episode was produced by Sara Burningham, Making Gay History’s founding editor and producer, and Inge De Taeye, Making Gay History’s deputy director, who handles all the post-production work to get our episodes out to you. Thank you also to our social media team, Cristiana Peña, Nick Porter, and Denio Lourenco. Making Gay History is a co-production of Pineapple Street Studios. Our theme music was composed by Fritz Meyers.

So long. Stay safe. Until next time.

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