July 31, 1932– Barbara Gittings:
“Equality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts.”
When I was 12 years old, I would scour the stacks of books and the bibliographies for information, any scrap or mention on Homosexuality at the Spokane Public Library’s main branch. Always looking over my shoulder, nearly everything I researched brought me frightening information with these terms tossed out: “Perversion”, “Invert”, “Criminal”, “Sinful”, “Suicide”, and “Unnatural”.
As a youth, I knew who the Civil Rights leaders were; there was Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Caesar Chavez, and I knew Women’s Rights icons: Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, but queer history was not being recorded the way those other movements’ histories were. I had no way of knowing about how important Gittings was to the burgeoning LGBTQ movement. She was determined to tear the “sickness” label off every queer in America, that’s all. During an era when very few gay people dared to come out in private, much less in public, Gittings was a brave vocal and visible figure in the fledgling fight for LGBTQ Rights.
In the late 1950s, she founded the New York City chapter of The Daughters Of Bilitis, the first national organization for lesbians, even though she lived in Philadelphia. In the 1960s, she took part in the first Gay Rights demonstrations at the White House and at Liberty Square in Philadelphia. In the early 1970s, she was the leading force in lobbying the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to change its position on homosexuality. In 1973, the APA invalidated the definition of homosexuality as a mental disorder. Kids, that means that for the first time in history, queers were officially not crazy.
Gittings also worked to make information about gay men and lesbians more widely available in libraries. Though not a librarian by training, she was for many years the head of the American Library Association‘s (ALA) Gay Task Force; she coordinated and edited the association’s comprehensive bibliography of literature by and about gay people. Gittings felt keenly aware of this need for such a bibliography. ALA’s Gay and Lesbian Task Force was the first such professional organization in the country. And with their bibliographies they helped create new areas of research. As a young woman, when she scoured local libraries just like me, seeking, but seldom seeing, something that would help her understand her own life.
Gittings was born in Vienna where her father was a member of the U.S. Diplomatic Corps, returning to the USA when she was a kid. When Gittings was a teenager her father caught her reading a copy of The Well Of Loneliness (1928), a landmark novel of lesbian love by the English author Radclyffe Hall. He told her, via a letter, to burn the book when he could not bring himself to speak to her in person.
Gittings studied Theatre at Northwestern University, but she was increasingly distracted by the need to learn as much as she could about homosexuality. This is when she began searching libraries of Chicago. She unearthed very little that was relevant and nothing that was encouraging.
“I had to find bits and pieces under headings like ‘sexual perversion’ or ‘sexual aberration’; in books on abnormal psychology. I kept thinking, ‘It’s me they’re writing about, but it doesn’t feel like me at all’.”
She left Northwestern after one year and for decades she supported her activism by taking clerical jobs. In 1958, commuting from her home in Philadelphia, Gittings started the New York City chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, which was founded in San Francisco in 1955. She later edited their national newsletter The Ladder.
The Stonewall Riot, watershed moment that it was, was just one of the baby steps taken by brave queer people to claim their basic rights. The first public demonstration for Gay Rights in the USA, began on July 4, 1965, four full years before the rebellion at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. The name the organizers chose for the event was The Annual Reminders, selected to remind the public that millions of American citizens were being denied the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as put forth in our The Declaration Of Independence.
The peaceful, orderly protest of just 39 strong souls, with lesbians wearing dresses and gay men in suits and ties, circled in front of Independence Hall with signs bearing slogans: “Homosexuals Should Be Judged As Individuals”, “15 Million Homosexual Americans Ask For Equality”, “Opportunity And Dignity”. The Annual Reminders continued at the same spot in Philadelphia through 1969, but after Stonewall, the movement shifted focus to NYC.
There was very little press coverage of the original march, although Confidential Magazine ran a feature: “Homos On The March!”. Behind those protests was Gittings.
The Annual Reminders were commemorated in 2005 by the placement of a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker at 6th and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia.
In her lifetime and beyond, Gittings received many awards, including an honorary membership in the American Library Association. The Free Library Of Philadelphia named its Gay And Lesbian Collection for her, and the NYC Public Library acquired the papers of Gittings and her longtime partner, Kay Tobin Lahusen. The letters, journals, newsletters and notes chronicle more than half a century in the LGBTQ Rights movement.
At the 1971 ALA Conference in Dallas, Gittings had set up a “Hug a Homosexual” booth which proved newsworthy enough that television reports were broadcast nationwide, and board member from a conservative community shielded his face and moved to the other side of the room. A newspaper account read:
“Farcical tumult reigned in the exhibit area when the Gay Lib group staged a ‘Hug-A-Homosexual’ stunt that attracted press and television but few hugs.”
The booth received a predictably mostly negative reaction, with little to no people stopping by for a free hug. So, the staffers of the booth hugged and kissed each other. Gittings kissed writer Isabel Miller while cameras were rolling and made the nightly news. That same year she appeared with a panel of lesbians on the David Susskind Show to debunk gay stereotypes of the time.
Gittings is a major figure in the documentaries Out Of The Past (1998), Gay Pioneers (2013), Before Stonewall (1984), and After Stonewall (1999).
In 1997, Gittings and Lahusen successfully pushed AARP to grant them a “couple’s membership” giving them a discount on their health insurance. Lahusen:
“Before Barbara died, we went jointly into an assisted-living facility. Our last bit of activism was to come out in the newsletter of our assisted-living facility.”
Gittings left this world, taken of that damn cancer, in February 2007. She was 74 years old. I wish she had lived to see the changes in this country in the past nine years. Just think, from a few souls marching in Philly 50+ years ago to full Marriage Equality for the entire nation is quite a journey.
In 1997, Gittings wrote:
“As a teenager, I had to struggle alone to learn about myself and what it meant to be gay. Now for 48 years, I’ve had the satisfaction of working with other gay people all across the country to get the bigots off our backs, to oil the closet door hinges, to change prejudiced hearts and minds, and to show that gay love is good for us and for the rest of the world too. It’s hard work, but it’s vital, and it’s gratifying, and it’s often fun!”