Barbara Gittings: Mother of the Gay Rights Movement

Day 2 of the Pride 30 Project for Pride Month, 2018.

Photo Credit: Kay Tobin (1966) via New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Barbara Gittings was a lover of books. She realized, from a young age, that she also loved girls. So when, in 1949, she left Wilmington, Delaware to attend Northwestern University, she did what any bookish young lesbian would do: research homosexuality in the school’s library. What Gittings found was not comforting. The vast majority of sources were written by medical professionals and described homosexuality as an illness or a perversion. She became so consumed with spending time in various Chicago libraries that she neglected her coursework and flunked out of school. But as a result of the discouraging information she found, an activist was born. With passion, determination, and what she would come to refer to as “gay gumption,” Gittings would spend the rest of her life working, in various ways, to correct those lies she found in the pages of books and scientific journals on the library shelves.

Gittings moved to Philadelphia in 1950 and supported herself with part-time clerical work. She continued to read everything she could find on homosexuality and, as part of her search, discovered Donald Webster Cory’s The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach, originally published in 1951. Gittings was particularly impressed with Cory’s arguments that gays and lesbians constituted a large unrecognized minority who deserved civil rights and his attempts to cultivate empathy in his readers by outlining the difficulties faced by American homosexuals. She wrote to Cory’s publisher and discovered he lived in New York City. The two met on several occasions, and Cory informed Gittings of a newly-formed gay organization in Los Angeles: the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950 by Harry Hay.

In the summer of 1956, when she was on vacation from her office job, Gittings boarded a plane to Los Angeles and visited the office of ONE, Inc., a homophile organization who had amicably split from the Mattachine Society in 1952. The members of ONE, Inc. informed her of the existence of a San Francisco-based organization for lesbians, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), founded in 1955 by lesbian partners Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.

Gittings once again boarded a plane, this time bound for San Francisco. The DOB were, fatefully, having a meeting that very evening in a member’s apartment. The meeting was the first time in her life Gittings would interact with a group of lesbians outside of a bar setting. Two years later, in 1958, Gittings officially joined the DOB and was tapped by Martin and Lyon to start an East Coast chapter of the organization based in New York City. With her co-founder, Marion Glass, Gittings built the chapter into the largest in the country.

In 1963, Gittings, whose enthusiasm and knowledge of literature left an impression on Martin and Lyon, was tapped to be the editor of The Ladder, the DOB’s national magazine for gay women. Gittings transformed The Ladder from what was essentially a newsletter to a national magazine respected within gay circles. With the help of her partner, Kay “Tobin” Lahusen, whom she met in 1961 at a DOB picnic in Rhode Island, Gittings replaced the amateurish illustrations that typically adorned the cover of The Ladder with photographs taken by Lahusen of actual lesbians who appeared confident and happy.

Gittings began to take The Ladder in an increasingly militant direction, reporting on protests, questioning the merits of various activist strategies such as picketing, and engaging in debates with so-called “experts,” arguing that homosexuality was a social and cultural problem, not a psychological problem. The activist bent of The Ladder under Gittings’ editorship alarmed the West Coast leadership of the DOB. When Gittings, amidst her many activities on behalf of gay rights, was late with the August 1966 issue, Martin and Lyon used her tardiness as an excuse to oust her as editor.

Gittings would also find a kindred spirit in Frank Kameny, who she credited as the first person to articulate a fully coherent philosophy of gay rights. She and Lahusen partnered with Mattachine Washington, of which Kameny was a co-founder, working alongside other lesbians and gay men to directly challenge the federal government. Gittings participated in the first picket of the White House for homosexual rights on April 17th of 1965.

Gittings worked with Kameny and other activists to lobby the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to remove homosexuality as a diagnostic category from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). At the APA’s 1972 conference, held in Dallas, Texas, Gittings, Kameny, and Lahusen created a display entitled “Gay, Proud, and Healthy: The Homosexual Community Speaks.” The exhibit, which featured photographs of gay couples taken by Lahusen, was adorned with the word “LOVE” in bold letters and portrayed gay people as healthy and happy, not as patients who were tormented and in need of a cure. In December of 1973, the APA board of trustees voted to pass a resolution to remove homosexuality from the DSM, effectively declassifying it as a mental illness.

Gittings was a lifelong bibliophile, and though she recognized the importance of taking on the federal government and institutions such as the APA, she never lost sight of the “lies in the libraries” she discovered as a college freshman and the importance of gay representation. In 1970, she joined the American Library Association’s (ALA) newly-formed Task Force on Gay Liberation (TFGL). The TFGL, whose mission was to provide support for gay librarians within the profession and increase gay representation in libraries, was glad to have a veteran activist like Gittings join their ranks.

With the help of Israel Fishman, the first coordinator of the TFGL, Gittings organized a gay kissing booth — titled “Hug-a-Homosexual: Free Kisses” — for the 1971 ALA conference in Dallas, Texas. While the group could have created a nice display featuring gay books, periodicals, and their bibliography, they instead decided to make their presence known by showing gay love live. The publicity was better than Gittings and the TFGL could have imagined, and continued to spark discussions within the ALA over the next year.

In 1999, in honor of her contributions to create more visibility for gays and lesbians in libraries and in the profession, Gittings was awarded a lifetime membership at the annual ALA conference, held that year in New Orleans, Louisiana. The ALA also named an award after Gittings as part of their Stonewall Book Awards, sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table (GLBTRT), the contemporary iteration of the TFGL. The Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award is given annually for works of fiction that exhibit “exceptional merit relating to the LGBT experience.”

Barbara Gittings died on February 18th, 2007 at the age of 74 after a long battle with breast cancer. In a 1999 interview with American Libraries magazine, she summarized her career as a gay activist with the wit and wisdom she was known for:

“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!”