Obits of Prominent Lesbians Dead of Cancer

Jan Platner, Gay Civil Rights Pioneer, Cancer Advocate

Cancer claims Jan Platner, gay civil rights pioneer Activist led GLAD through St. Patrick's Day parade lawsuit

By Ethan Jacobs

The GLBT community lost one of its heroes March 15 when Jan Platner, 54, passed away after a recurrence of cancer, leaving behind a legacy of struggle for GLBT rights, civil liberties and breast cancer awareness.

Described by her friends and loved ones as a passionate fighter for social justice, she made some of her greatest contributions to the community while fighting her own battle with cancer.

In the mid-'80s she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and told by doctors that she had two years to live.

Miraculously the cancer went into remission for 17 years, and over that period she held leadership positions at organizations ranging from Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) to the National Breast Cancer Coalition to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts.

"Jan was just a tremendous person. She had a totally dry caustic wit. She was incredibly smart; when you talked to Jan you were always on your toes. And she just had a passion for the things she believed in," said Denise McWilliams, a close friend who first met Platner when the two worked as criminal defense attorneys at Ward, Rizzo and Lund in the early '80s. As a board member at GLAD in the mid-'80s Platner helped found the group's AIDS Law Project, and McWilliams was hired to work as the project's staff attorney.

Shortly before her death, on March 6, Platner and her longtime partner, Carol Pugliese, were joined in marriage by the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie in an intimate ceremony at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, surrounded by a handful of friends.

The couple met in the mid-'80s and began their relationship in 1993, and Pugliese said in the days before their wedding the two felt like their marriage was the culmination of their relationship together.

"As Jan and I just said [before wedding], it felt like we were housed under construction for all these years, and it was finally done," said Pugliese.

Platner devoted much of her life to fighting for the rights of GLBT people. She served on the GLAD board from 1984 to 1990 and served as the group's executive director from 1993 to 1995.

During her time as executive director, GLAD brought its landmark case on behalf of gay marchers in the St. Patrick's Day Parade to the U.S. Supreme Court, and GLAD Political Director Gary Buseck credits her with coordinating the organization's media strategy during what was at the time their most high profile case.

"She brought GLAD for the first time into a sophisticated engagement with media around a gay rights case," said Buseck.

As Executive Director of the Cambridge Human Rights Commission from 1989 to 1993, Platner helped draft Cambridge's 1992 domestic partner ordinance.

Beyond her commitment to GLBT rights, she was also a passionate civil libertarian. Woody Kaplan, a close friend who served with her on the board of directors of the ACLU of Massachusetts, remembers her passion for individual liberties inspiring her fellow board members.

In 1999, Platner became the president of the board, serving for one year. Kaplan said her devotion to the cause was infectious, and she was a major fundraiser for the organization.

"She called on people one by one, shared her passion for civil liberties with them, and fired them up," said Kaplan.

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, credited Platner with helping the organization reach out to the GLBT community.

"As president of the ACLU of Massachusetts board of directors, she was a wonderful spokesperson to make people aware of the decades of work that the ACLU has done on LGBT rights," said Rose.

Platner also devoted much of her time to working for breast cancer causes. From 1995 to 1997, she served as executive director of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, and in 2000 Platner and Pugliese moved to Washington D.C., where Platner became director of administration and programs at the National Breast Cancer Coalition. She served in that position until 2003, when she became too ill to work, and the couple moved to Provincetown.

On a personal level, Platner's friends and loved ones remember her strength, her sense of humor, and her willingness to fight for the causes that mattered to her.

"I think of her as a friend who was, on that personal level, very committed and loyal and engaged, and I think of her more broadly as extremely smart and feisty and always ready to take on the battles," said Buseck.

"Her whole battle with cancer that started 20 years ago always amazed me because in 1985 she was given [only a short time] to live and I feel like she just willed herself into health."

"My respect for her grew into affection, and I cherished her friendship, and it continued even after she moved to Washington... and when she moved back up here," said Kaplan. "She was a quiet giant. She was really something."

According to Pugliese, Platner was as passionate about sports as she was about civil rights, with a mind that could memorize sports stats as easily as litigation strategies.

"Some of her last words were about sports. She had major questions about [Patriots linebacker Tedy] Bruschi," said Pugliese. Platner was also a voracious mystery reader, an opera aficionado, and a lover of travel, with a particular fondness for Italy.

Platner is survived by Pugliese, her brother Robert Platner, her sister Susan Platner, and her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Robert and Helen Platner. The couple had hoped to celebrate their wedding April 2 in Provincetown, but instead her family and friends will gather to remember Platner's life.

Published: Thursday, March 17, 2005

Thanks to

Ann's NOTE: Ann Fonfa knew Jan Platner personally through their mutual involvement with the National Breast Cancer Coalition. On several occasions the two of them were the only advocates at scientific meetings.

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