by Len Lear
On July 4, 1967, I covered one of the nation’s first gay rights demonstrations in front of Independence Hall, although the word “gay” was not used yet in this context. Despite their historical significance, the demonstrators were pretty much ignored by the media.
I could not believe it when a woman named Barbara Gittings called the Philadelphia Tribune, where I had just begun working, and asked me to cover the rally for homosexual rights. I thought she must be kidding because what homosexual man or woman on earth would want to draw attention to him/herself in 1967, when such attention could cost a person his/her job, education, reputation or their very lives?
I did cover the demonstration because I was so curious, however, since I did not think I had ever seen or known a homosexual man or woman in my life to that point, and I was 27. (Of course, the odds are that I had known gay people, but since they were almost all “in the closet” at that time, it was impossible to really know.) I thought homosexuals were as rare as one-eyed dinosaurs.
I eventually got to know Barbara Gittings, the organizer and spokesperson of the July 4 demonstration, and had numerous conversations with her. She convinced me that almost everything I thought I knew about homosexuality (that is was a mental illness, for example) was wrong. In fact, now that the U.S. Treasury has said it is going to put the face of a woman on the $10 bill, replacing Alexander Hamilton, I honestly think that Barbara Gittings, who is now regarded as “The Mother of the Gay Rights Movement,” deserves that honor as much as any woman in U.S. history. (Instead of the $10 bill, the government should put a woman on the $20 bill to replace Andrew Jackson because he was a genocidal racist who thoroughly enjoyed murdering Native Americans, but that’s another story.)
Here is why I admire Barbara Gittings so much: Barbara (July 31, 1932–Feb. 18, 2007), who was born in Austria but was brought to the U.S. soon afterwards by her parents, came out of the closet before most Americans even knew there was such a closet. She organized the New York chapter of a lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) from 1958 to 1963, edited the national DOB magazine The Ladder from 1963 to 1966, and worked closely with a gentleman named Frank Kameny in the 1960s on the first picket lines that brought attention to the ban on employment of gay people by the largest employer in the country, the U.S. government.
Like early civil rights activists, Gittings and other gay pioneers had to put up with ugly taunts, threats, physical attacks and indifference when they sought help from police, many of whom thought that gays deserved the abuse they were getting. In the 1970s, Gittings was heavily involved in the American Library Association, especially its gay caucus, the first such in a professional organization, in order to promote positive literature about homosexuality in libraries.
Barbara, who was soft-spoken and almost always had a smile on her face, despite her Sisyphean challenges, was also part of the movement to get the American Psychiatric Association to drop homosexuality as a mental illness in 1972. She once told me that her mission in life was to “do away with the shroud of invisibility” related to homosexuality that associated it with crime and mental illness.
Barbara, who went to Catholic schools as a girl and told me she even thought seriously about becoming a nun, explained, “There was no one I could talk to about my attraction to other girls, so I decided to read as much as I could on the topic.” She found very little, and much of what she found described homosexuals as “deviants,” “perverts,” etc., in medical and psychology textbooks.
She said many years later, “I thought, this is not about me. There is nothing here about love or happiness. There has to be something better.” Her research took up so much of her time when she was a student at Northwestern University that she ended up failing out of school. “I stopped going to classes and started going to the library. There were no organizations to turn to in those days; only libraries were safe, but the information in those libraries about homosexuality was pathetic and mostly wrong.”
Gittings told me she had her first intimate relationship with another woman at the age of 17. At age 18, she left home in Wilmington, Delaware, to be on her own and moved to Philadelphia. She began to hitchhike on weekends to New York City, dressed as a man, to visit gay bars since she knew of none in Philadelphia, and knew of no other places to “get plugged into the gay community.”
In a 1975 interview, she recalled, “I wore drag because I thought that was a way to show I was gay. It’s changed now, but in the early 50s there were basically two types of women in the gay bars: the so-called butch ones in short hair and plain masculine attire and the so-called femme ones in dresses and high heels and makeup. I knew high heels and makeup weren’t my style, so I thought I must be the other kind!”
However, Gittings found very little in common with the women she met in the bars, and after witnessing a gay male acquaintance get physically assaulted after leaving a bar, she began to focus her energies on collecting books instead. For the rest of her life, Barbara continued her activism on a variety of issues around human rights and gay rights.
In 2007, Gittings died in an assisted living facility in Kennett Square after a long battle with breast cancer. She was survived by her life partner, Kay Tobin Lahusen, and her sister, Eleanor Gittings Taylor. In 1999, Gittings summed up the inspiration for her activism: “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!”
When Gittings died, Toni Armstrong, a Chicago gay activist, said, “Whether they know it or not, whether they have heard of her or not, I believe every single gay person’s life on this planet is better because Barbara Gittings was here. Whenever someone dies, the word ‘beloved’ gets thrown about, but in this case, it truly applies. She was as nice, generous and upbeat as she was formidable, courageous and effective. Legacies don’t get much better than that.”