pioneer Barbara Gittings
Philadelphia--One of the earliest leaders of the effort for lesbian and gay equality died February 18 at the age of 75, following a long bout with breast cancer.
Barbara Gittings has been called “the Rosa Parks of the gay civil rights movement.” She is most known for putting a “normal” human face on gays and lesbians at a time when doing so meant breaking laws.
Gittings was with her partner Kay Tobin Lahusen at their home in an assisted living facility when she fell into a coma Sunday morning. They met doing activist work in 1961.
The couple visited Cleveland in November, 2001, where they were the guests of honor at a reception benefiting the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats. Those paying tribute to the women included then state representative Dale Miller, now a state senator, and Cleveland councilor Matt Zone.
During that trip, Gittings gave the keynote speech at the Cleveland LGBT Center’s annual meeting, a first-person history lesson which she called, “Gay and Smiling: Tales from our Fifty Years of Activism.”
“We have the guest of a lifetime,” said then center director Linda Malicki as she introduced Gittings.
Gittings was one of the first to picket for lesbian and gay equal rights, which she did every July 4 in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia from 1965 to 1969--and at the White House and Pentagon--always in a starched dress and a smile. A historical marker for these demonstrations was erected there by the state of Pennsylvania in 2005 with Gittings and Lahusen at the unveiling.
That starched dress, and white shirts and ties for the men, was a purposeful part of the strategy to present gays and lesbians as mainstream, Gittings told the group at the center. She called the Independence Hall events “Annual Reminder” days. The sign she carried read, “Homosexuals should be treated as individuals.”
In 1958 Gittings organized the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian social club that fought the anti-gay climate of the times. Gittings edited the group’s publication The Ladder from 1963 to 1966. Part of the job was making sure the publication was cryptic enough to get past the postal “obscenity” regulations of the time, without losing its meaning.
Gittings led a group of librarians in 1971 to establish the first gay book award. She pulled off a “media coup” at the American Library Association’s annual conference in Dallas that year by staging a “Hug a Homosexual” kissing booth to call attention to the issue.
Arguably, her most significant accomplishment was her role in convincing the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973. The classification had given a cloak of legitimacy to anti-gay laws around the world.
Activists Gittings and Frank Kamney disrupted the APA’s annual meetings in 1970 and 1971, causing the organization to confront its homophobic stance. This was significant because psychiatrists that attempting to do this from within were losing their medical licenses.
At the APA meeting in 1972, Gittings and Kamney sat beside gay psychaiatrist Dr. John Fryer--who was in disguise and known only as “Dr. H. Anonymous” for fear of losing his license--and heterosexual psychiatrist Dr. Judd Marmor at a panel called “Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to Homosexuals?”
It was the first time the APA heard gays and lesbians confronting them with evidence contrary to their beliefs. A year later, the group determined that homosexuality was not a mental illness, and the designation could no longer be used to justify anti-gay laws and harassment.
Last year, the APA gave its first John Fryer Award to Gittings and Kameny.
A librarian by profession, Gittings was awarded numerous professional and literary awards for her work, including the American Library Association’s highest honor in 2003 for establishing the organization’s Gay Task Force.
Gittings and Lahusen wrote the acclaimed 1973 book The Gay Crusaders.
While in Cleveland, Gittings told her audience that it is important to archive personal photos and papers related to the movement.
“There were few photos in the early days of our movement,” said Gittings, “because in those days, people were afraid to have their pictures taken.”
Gittings’ 2001 Cleveland message emphasized the importance of the visibility of LGBT people being themselves in all aspects of life.
“Equality means more than passing laws,” Gittings admonished. “The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts.”
Lahusen has requested that memorial donations be made to the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund where a special fund honoring Gittings will be established.