Barbara Gittings: The Grand Mother of Gay Liberation

7 years ago

It wasn't that many years ago that the average person couldn't list more than 10 great women from history. Thankfully, the world has changed and we're much more likely to know about the contributions that women have made to our world. Except... most of us still can't name more than a handful of lesbian women from our history. Let me tell you about Barbara Gittings, a woman whose contributions are so great that upon her death from breast cancer in 2007, it was said "What do we owe her? Everything."

By Kay Tobin Lahusen or CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Gittings organized the New York chapter of The Daughters of Bilits and The Mattachine Society, and was involved in the first gay civil rights marches held in Washington, DC and Philadelphia in 1965 (years before Stonewall).

In 1972, Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings were invited to speak to the American Psychiatric Association to help educate psychiatrists about homosexuality. Because they knew there would be doctors there presenting the opinion that homosexuality is a deviant mental illness, they agreed that they needed a psychiatrist who could speak in support of homosexuality. They asked Dr. John Fryer, a gay psychiatrist, who agreed to sit on the panel -- but only if he was able to disguise himself. He wore a mask, used a voice distorting microphone and was introduced as "Dr. H. Anonymous.

By Kay Tobin Lahusen or CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the 60s, as editor of the lesbian magazine, The Ladder, Gittings and her partner Kay (Tobin) Lahusen had to work for years to find real lesbians who were willing to be featured on the cover of the magazine. European women would volunteer but American women... they were too afraid.

When Barbara's father caught her reading The Well of Loneliness, he was so appalled that he could not speak to her. Instead, he wrote her a letter telling her to burn that book.

When she was in college, at Northwestern, she could not find books about gays and lesbians... unless they were about homosexuality as deviant behavior and mental illness.

In the early 70s, Gittings became the leader of the American Library Association's Task Force on Gay Liberation. Her work helped ensure lesbians would find supportive and informative information about homosexuality on library bookshelves.

In 1971, Gittings was a star in the first gay kissing booth, staged by the Gay Task Force of the American Library Association.

From Women's Space:

“Equality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts.” — Barbara Gittings

In 1997, Giddings and her partner pushed the AARP to grant them a couples membership which would allow them a discount on health insurance. One of Gittings' last acts was to come out to fellow residents of the nursing home that she and her partner had entered:

“Before Barbara died, we went jointly into an assisted-living facility here,” Ms. Lahusen said by telephone. “Our last bit of activism was to come out in the newsletter of our assisted-living facility.”

My favorite quote from Giddings is probably this one:

"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!"

Her work helped change the world for all of us and helped lay the foundation for the world our children will inherit.

Photo Credit: WikiCommons.

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