LGBTQ History

The secret lesbian couple behind a historic meeting at the White House

Photo of the meeting
Photo: Bill Bland Photo - Michael Bedwell Collection

QUESTION: “How did the historic first meeting with gays inside the White House happen?”

MIDGE COSTANZA, Special Assistant to President Jimmy Carter: “I received a phone call from Jean O’Leary and Bruce Voeller, the co-executive directors of the National Gay Task Force, and they said, ‘It is time. It is time that a government we helped choose and a government we help pay no longer discriminate against us. We want to talk – and we want to talk in the White House’.”

JEAN O’LEARY: “I rolled over in bed and said, ‘Midge, we’re going to the White House.'”

In 2010, like singer Whitney Houston, composer Leonard Bernstein, actress Katherine Hepburn, actor Anthony Perkins, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, Washington Redskins football legend Jerry Smith, and one-time astronaut Sally Ride, Midge Costanza died in the public closet.

In 2008, facing a return of cancer, she asked Dr. Doreen Mattingly, Professor and Chair of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University, to help her finish the autobiography she’d been working on for years. She passed before it could be finished, but not before calling Mattingly from her hospital bed urging her to keep on. A Feminist in the White House: Midge Costanza, the Carter Years, and America’s Culture Wars was published in 2016.

Written with deep affection and some fear that Costanza would not have liked all she reveals, some of those revelations are startling.

Costanza grew up in a constantly financially struggling Catholic, Italian-American family; for a time they were on welfare. Her Sicilian native Mother was illiterate and never learned to speak English, but some family members believe Midge’s eventual strong personality came from her. Her parents fought often and violently, young Midge feeling a responsibility to try to prevent the fights, and be a caretaker for everyone, particularly her younger brother. One of her earliest acts of rebellion was a “successful sit-down strike in the kitchen demanding to attend first grade in public – not parochial – school.”

She was so obviously intelligent and articulate it’s surprising to learn she never went to college. Her first significant job was as the dedicated and eventually powerful executive assistant to a successful Rochester, New York, businessman, John Petrossi. Though he was married, she also became his mistress of several years.

Her early interest in politics – Franklin Delano Roosevelt was her hero – led to heavy involvement with the Democratic Party and election to the Rochester City Council. When Carter ran for President in 1976 she co-chaired his New York campaign operation, and seconded his nomination at the Democratic National Convention.

Jean O’Leary Bedwell Collection

Despite crushes on other girls in grade school, Jean O’Leary entered a Cleveland, Ohio, convent to train as a nun. After eight relationships there and realizing lesbian feminist activism was her real calling, she left, becoming involved in several groups in New York City including Gay Activists Alliance and its spin-off she co-founded, Lesbian Feminist Liberation.

In 1976 she became co-executive director of the National Gay Task Force (NGTF; today the National LGBTQ Task Force) and was one of three out delegates to the Democratic National Convention. That’s where she was introduced to Costanza by New York Representative Bella Abzug when O’Leary needed help trying to get the Convention to include a gay rights plank in the Party’s platform. Just like George McGovern’s team blocked a similar plank in the 1972 platform, Carter’s blocked this one.

A few months later Petrossi died and Costanza and O’Leary’s secret relationship began shortly after, about the same time President-elect Carter asked Costanza to move to Washington and become his Assistant to the President for Public Liaison, the first woman in such a position, and his “window on the world.”

She quickly clashed with Carter’s all-male “Georgia Mafia.” And within three weeks of his inauguration, the public version of the lovers’ plot was taking shape. Costanza told the press that she was so impressed with a meeting about gay issues with just O’Leary and Voeller that she suggested a follow-up larger meeting in March. Asked repeatedly if she’d cleared the meeting with Carter, she only replied that it was on her daily schedule for anyone to see – and someone on his staff must have alerted him to such articles. In any case, that was the second weekend since assuming the Presidency that he spent at Camp David with First Lady Rosalyn Carter and daughter Amy.

After O’Leary and Voeller identified and invited 12 others to present with them, the first ever meeting with gays in the White House took place in the Roosevelt Room on Saturday, March 26, 1977, with Costanza, her deputy, Marilyn Haft, Robert Malson, Civil Rights Specialist in the Office of Domestic Policy, Cooki Lutkefedder, Democratic National Committee, and:

  • Bill Kelley, gay rights leader from Chicago
  • Betty Powell, cofounder and NGTF board member
  • Charlie Brydon, NGTF board member from Seattle
  • Myra Riddell, founder of Southern California Women for Understanding.
  • Charlotte Spitzer, founder of PFLAG Los Angeles
  • Ray Hartman, activist from Los Angeles
  • Pokey Anderson, cofounder Houston Gay Political Caucus.
  • George Raya, California gay rights lobbyist
  • Frank Kameny, NGTF cofounder, Mattachine Society of Washington cofounder, ad infinitum
  • Bishop Troy Perry, founder Metropolitan Community Churches
  • Charlotte Bunch, founding director Public Resource Center, Women’s Studies professor
  • Elaine Noble, Massachusetts state representative

Bill Bland Photo – Public Domain

PHOTO: Clockwise from center, Costanza (back to the camera), Malson, O’Leary, Kelley, Powell, Brydon, Spitzer, Riddell, Lutkefedder, Hartman, Anderson, Raya, Kameny, Perry, Bunch, Noble, Voeller, Haft.

The night before, the 14 had a planning meeting in the offices of California Sen. Alan Cranston to finalize each person’s specific presentation for the next day.

Bill Bland Photo - Michael Bedwell Collection

George Raya, far left above, remembered:

For weeks prior to the conference, we all worked very hard to prepare for the meeting with White House staff. Each of us was assigned a federal agency; mine was the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Our assignment was to prepare a white paper that made recommendations to the federal government to better serve gays and lesbians. At the time, hepatitis was rampant within the gay male community, so I recommended additional funding. On a personal note, 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.”

Bill Bland Photo - Michael Bedwell Collection
Standing: Gary Aldridge, Legislative Assistant to Sen. Cranston Bill bland Photo - Michael Bedwell Collection

 

Before the meeting started Saturday, Costanza made a special point of welcoming Frank Kameny who had led the first gay rights group picket outside the White House 12 years before, saying something like, “Frank, 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.” That he was seated before the portrait of Franklin Roosevelt was perfect juxtaposition as the gay rights movement never had a more brilliant leader.

Bill Bland Photo - Michael Bedwell Collection

During the three-hour meeting the delegation discussed antigay discrimination by the Internal Revenue Service, the Departments of Defense, Housing and Urban Development, Health Education and Welfare, the Federal Communications Commission, the Bureau of Prisons, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

According to NGTF’s 30th Anniversary account:

They pointed out that the U.S. Civil Rights Commission took no interest in discrimination and prejudice against our communities and asked for support in passage of federal nondiscrimination legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in hiring, education and public accommodations. They included religious and family issues in their presentations and spoke of the pain and suffering of lesbians and gay men at the hands of church leaders and family members.

Following the meeting, Costanza arranged meetings between Task Force representatives and all of the agencies specifically named by the delegation, except the IRS. But by June 1977, the IRS dropped its requirement that lesbian and gay groups applying for tax-exempt status agree not to assert that homosexuality is as morally upright as heterosexuality and not hold meetings at which homosexuals would gather and possibly violate state sodomy laws. By February 1978, Task Force representatives had met with government agencies officials from the Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the Public Health Service and the Federal Communications Commission.

O’Leary & Voeller lead the delegation exiting the historic White House meeting. Bill Bland Photo - Michael Bedwell Collection
Bill Bland Photo - Michael Bedwell Collection

While some progress definitely came out of the meeting including Carter’s support for discharged gays being included in a program to apply for upgrade of their discharge characterization which could lead to veteran benefits they’d been denied, conversely discharges increased during his administration, and progress in some other areas was reversed by the Reagan Administration.

Unquestionably the most positive outcome was the widespread mainstream media, newspaper and television news, reporting on this historic first when the public saw gay equality being taken seriously by someone in the White House for the first time; even if the headlines “White House Backs Gay Rights” were totally unfounded as Carter himself continued to give only faint generalized lip service to the subject and never became actively involved. But, still, everyone involved that day deserves our  people’s gratitude because it moved us several steps closer to the degree of equality we have today. Nearly half of the gay delegation have passed.

Such visibility and at least theoretical legitimization further outraged Anita Bryant who was already campaigning for repeal of Miami’s gay rights ordinance.

A recording of a teleconference discussion with some of the participants upon the 30th anniversary of the meeting is here.

The women’s romantic relationship ended in 1980, but they stayed close friends and continued to work together on women’s and LGBTQ rights until O’Leary’s premature death at 57, also of cancer, in 2005.

“Some of us didn’t even realize that we touched each other. You touched me. And I touched you.” – Midge Costanza

Bedwell Collection

I had that experience with her twice. First, a few months after her meeting with the NGTF delegation when she invited my roommate Leonard Matlovich for a tour of the White House and he took me along. He had told me of her secret affair with O’Leary but I was careful not to say anything about it. As Mattingly wrote: “She had a way of shining the full force of her attention and warmth and humor on a person.” She told Leonard how much she admired his sacrifice of his career in the Air Force by purposely outing himself to challenge their gay ban and his being a part of the anti-Anita campaign in Miami that June. She graciously let us sit at Carter’s desk in the Oval Office and have our picture taken, and others in the Roosevelt Room where the historic meeting had been held, memories I still treasure as they’re both now gone.

The second time was in June of 1978. I was producing a fundraising concert for DC’s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club starring Eartha Kitt, and she graciously agreed to invite Kitt and me to her office to help generate publicity for the concert. Lunch in the White House mess with those two great women is another treasured memory.

One still wonders how she was able to show no sign of the hell I later learned she had been going through with the Georgia Mafia and other Carter staffers over her refusal to stay quiet about the things she believed in. Her staff had been taken away and her office moved from next to the Oval to the basement. Just a few weeks later, she sent Carter this letter:

July 31, 1978

Dear Mr. President:

This is the most difficult letter that I have ever written.

For 20 months, I have worked hard to serve you and your administration to help you keep your commitment to a partnership with the people.

My job was to keep you from being isolated-to bring you the message of what people were thinking and feeling and needing, and there were times that required my speaking out.

I listened in the White House, and I listened as I traveled throughout the country to ethnic groups, women, minorities, youth, senior citizens, and others who wished to participate.

I care about the issues of the young and the old, of minorities and women—and most especially the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment—and I know you do too.

Although we share these common goals and concerns, it has become clear that our approaches to fulfilling them are different. I have thought about how in every government, including this one, the complexities of the problems place enormous pressures on the people whose job it is to carry out those responsibilities. Within this administration, we are people of varied backgrounds, styles and experiences, and the manner in which we carry out your charge reflects our training and orientation.

My own approach has been largely one of advocacy. I have sought to advise you on the concerns assigned to me and to present those interests and needs to you.

There are those who suggest that I should have simply carried out your policies and not voiced my own opinions and ideas openly. But that was not my style, my experience, or my interpretation of how I could best serve you and your constituents.

In recent months, I have had to deal increasingly with the subject of approach rather than that of substance, spending valuable time and energy discussing whether I have spoken out too much, what my relations are to your other senior staff, or where my office is located. The task of government is too enormous and the needs of the people are too urgent to absorb our differences in approach or to allow the time to create the atmosphere necessary to deal effectively with our goals, while sorting out the variety of our approaches.

If we could declare a recess and stop the wheels of government so that we could reconcile our diverse methods, we could perhaps come out ahead and serve the people at the same time. Since that is not possible, I have decided that at this time it is best for me to continue to search for solutions to the issues that originally brought us together, in another capacity outside the White House.

Participation in your administration may well be the most valuable experience of my life. I am mindful of that as I take my leave.

I leave with the realization that this experience will assist me as I continue to pursue my commitment to addressing the needs of the people in a different form.

I leave with the knowledge that you care about the vital issues that I have worked on, and trust that my efforts will have established a sound beginning for whomever you appoint as my successor and that the crucially important work on women’s issues and domestic human rights can proceed without interruption.

I leave with the desire to cooperate in every way possible with you and your administration in the pursuit of these goals in the future.

Sincerely yours,

MARGARET MIDGE COSTANZA

Assistant to the President

 

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“Remember your roots, your history, and the forebears’ shoulders on which you stand.” – Marion Wright Edelman.

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