Who Was the Mother of the Gay Rights Movement? (Part 1)

Barbara Gittings, often referred to as the “Mother of the Gay Rights Movement,” was an activist since the 1950s, nearly two decades before the Stonewall Inn Riots of 1969.

“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.”
 — George Eliot
Photo Credit: Kay “Tobin” Lahusen via New York Public Library Digital Collections.

“The Lies In the Libraries”: Gittings Finds Her People

Barbara Gittings always loved books. From a young age she felt different not only for being a “literary type,” but also because she was attracted to girls. Others recognized her difference as well, namely a teacher who advised her to curtail her “homosexual inclinations.” But Gittings was undeterred and used her exuberant personality and charming smile to disarm the homophobes she encountered. Born in Vienna, Austria on July 31st of 1932, Gittings was the daughter of a U.S. diplomat. Her family returned to the United States in the 1940s, and she spent her adolescence in Wilmington, Delaware.

When she left to attend college at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, she did what any bookish young lesbian away from home for the first time would do: she began researching homosexuality in the library. What she found was not encouraging. The vast majority of sources were written by medical professionals and described homosexuality as an illness or a perversion. Furthermore, most of the information she found focused on men and never mentioned love as something possible between people of the same gender. Gittings instinctively knew she was not ill, and referred to the early information she found as “the lies in the libraries.” So consumed was she with spending time in various Chicago libraries reading what so-called “experts” had to say that she neglected her coursework.

She also explored literary representations of homosexuality such as Radclyffe Hall’s controversial 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness. As the first English novel to depict homosexuality between women, The Well was banned by the British government under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, but nevertheless played a significant role in the development of modern lesbian identity. Gittings flunked out of college and returned home disgraced, but continued her research.

When her father discovered her copy of The Well, he threatened to throw her out of the house if she did not immediately get rid of it. Gittings, in response, simply found a better hiding place for the book. As a result of the discouraging information she found and her father’s disapproval, 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.

“A Lesbian Review”: Gittings, the Daughters, and The Ladder

Gittings left her parent’s home in 1950 at the age of eighteen, moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and relied on part-time clerical work to support herself. Ever the reader, she continued to seek out works on homosexuality, hoping to find crumbs of positive representation. As part of her search, Gittings discovered Donald Webster Cory’s The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach, originally published in 1951. Cory, whose legal name was Edward Sagarin, was a professor of Sociology and Criminology at the City University of New York. Although from a modern standpoint The Homosexual in America is rife with mid-twentieth-century stereotypes about homosexuality, Cory’s book was influential to the pre-Stonewall Homophile Movement. It was also influential to Barbara Gittings. She 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.

Cover of the paperback edition of Cory’s book.

She began to seek out titles from Cory’s list of readings on homosexuality in second-hand bookshops and amassed a considerable collection. She also wrote to Cory’s publisher and discovered he lived in New York City. Gittings and Cory met on several occasions to discuss literature, and he also informed her about a recently formed gay organization in Los Angeles, California: the Mattachine Society. Taking its name from a medieval fraternal organization that sought to fight tyranny in French society, the Mattachine Society was founded by Harry Hay in 1950. Hay, like Cory, believed that gays constituted an oppressed minority who did not yet recognize themselves as such. He further believed that, if afforded the chance, gays and lesbians could create a unique culture of their own similar to those of other minority groups such as Blacks, Mexicans, and Jewish people. Gays were not ill, Hay argued, but victims of prejudice and oppression.

Barbara Gittings was delighted to learn of an organization comprised of people like her. In the summer of 1956, when she was on vacation from her office job, she 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. In addition to publishing the first pro-gay publication in the United States, a monthly magazine entitled ONE, the organization was the first gay rights group in the country to have a dedicated office. In this way, ONE, Inc. functioned as a prototype to today’s modern LGBTQ community centers. To Gittings’ further surprise, 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.

Phyllis Lyon (left) and Del Martin (right). Photo Credit: Kay “Tobin” Lahusen via New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Daughters, as they were colloquially referred to, originally formed as a social club for gay women as an alternative to gay bars, which, in the repressive 1950s, were subject to frequent police raids. In a social climate laden with harassment and witch hunts, the creation of an organization for gay women, who began congregating in Martin and Lyon’s home, was a bold move. As the Daughters gained members, their focus shifted from social interaction to providing resources and support to lesbian women who faced a society hostile to their very existence. The group took its name from the work of a French poet, Pierre Louys, who published a lengthy poem he claimed was written by a contemporary of Sappho named Bilitis, a woman who was a lover of both men and women equally. Of course, Louys himself was the author of the poem, and Bilitis was a work of his imagination, not an actual woman.

Gittings once again boarded a plane, this time bound for San Francisco, and was met at the airport by Martin and Lyon. In what must have been fate, the Daughters were 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. Though Gittings was a “newbie,” she had many opinions and did not hold back over the course of the evening. Though she had a congenial personality and could talk to anyone, Gittings’ kindness was not a sign of submissiveness. “Your name is too complicated,” she bluntly told the women, “and besides, Bilitis wasn’t even a lesbian — technically, she was bisexual.” Organizations such as Mattachine, ONE, Inc., and the DOB had complicated, literary, or indirect names because, at the time, it was too risky to outright brand oneself as a homosexual group. Despite Gittings “sounding off” at the meeting, her enthusiasm and knowledge of literature left an impression on Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who were in the process of creating a publication for the Daughters.

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 took on the task with her usual sense of get-up-and-go, building the chapter into the largest in the country. The New York chapter brought women into the Homophile Movement and fostered collaboration between lesbians and gay men by building relationships with the Mattachine Society in New York and Washington, D.C. By 1963, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon’s idea to create a DOB publication blossomed into The Ladder, a national magazine for gay women.

Inaugural issue of The Ladder, 1956.

Launched in October of 1956, The Ladder was initially conceived of as a recruitment tool for the DOB. Over the course of its sixteen-year run, the magazine became a respected site of information and commentary on homosexuality and the emerging gay rights and feminist movements. Phyllis Lyon served as the magazine’s first editor from 1956 to 1960. Del Martin then took over as editor in 1960. During their tenure as editors, Lyon and Martin used the publication to both advertise the work of the DOB and to expand the magazine’s political coverage of the Gay Rights Movement. By 1963, Martin was ready to relinquish the reins and turn over her responsibilities to someone new. She chose the most articulate, opinionated, and literary person she knew: Barbara Gittings.

Gittings planning issues of The Ladder. Photo Credit: Kay “Tobin” Lahusen via New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Gittings working on The Ladder. Photo Credit: Kay “Tobin” Lahusen via New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The issues of The Ladder produced during Gittings’ editorship from 1963 to 1966 are typically considered the best run of the magazine. Gittings transformed The Ladder from what was essentially a newsletter to a national magazine respected within gay circles. She also took the magazine in a more socially conscious direction. During her time as editor, Gittings grew increasingly frustrated with the DOB’s emphasis on conformity of thought and their mission to help lesbians integrate into society as opposed to social transformation. The DOB, in essence, sought to provide information in order to help lesbians climb the social “ladder” so they could be well-adjusted members of society. To this end, they advertised themselves as “A Women’s Organization for the Purpose of Promoting the Integration of the Homosexual into Society.” Expanding upon this description, the DOB constructed a four-part mission statement that was printed on the inside cover of every issue of The Ladder until 1970:

  1. Education of the variant… to enable her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society…this to be accomplished by establishing… a library… on the sex deviant theme; by sponsoring public discussions… to be conducted by leading members of the legal psychiatric, religious and other professions; by advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society.
  2. Education of the public… leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous taboos and prejudices…
  3. Participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychologists, sociologists, and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual.
  4. Investigation of the penal code as it pertain to the homosexual, proposal of changes,… and promotion of these changes through the due process of law in the state legislatures.

Gittings took issue with many of these statements. For starters, the DOB shied away from the word “lesbian,” instead referring to gay women as “variants.” She also believed that gay people themselves, not academics and medical professionals, were the primary experts on issues of homosexuality. It was not uncommon for so-called “experts” to be invited to Mattachine and DOB meetings only to lecture members about how “sick” and “depraved” they were. Finally, she thought that society should change in order to embrace gay people as equals, not that gays and lesbians should “adjust” to a hostile world. Gittings began adding the subtitle “A Lesbian Review” to The Ladder and removing the “for adults only” warning from the cover, which suggested there was something lurid or inappropriate about lesbianism.

Issue of The Ladder from November 1960. Image via ONE Archives.

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. An activist in her own right, Lahusen was the first gay photojournalist in the United States. In print, she used the surname “Tobin” because it was easier to remember and pronounce than “Lahusen.” Gittings and Lahusen would spend the remainder of their lives together, with Lahusen using her camera to document every step of their near 50-year partnership.

Ernestine Eckstein on the cover of The Ladder, June 1966. Photo Credit: Kay “Tobin” Lahusen.

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. Kameny, a Harvard graduate with a PhD in Astronomy, had been fired from his job with the Army Map Service (the precursor to NASA) in Washington, D.C. when his employers discovered he was gay. This incident altered the course of Kameny’s life, radicalizing and empowering him to declare war on “the establishment” on behalf of gay rights. While Lahusen preferred a more behind-the-scenes approach, Gittings and Kameny, both propelled by an inner fire and the belief that “gay was good,” would publicly fight side-by-side for decades.

Though Gittings and Lahusen were growing increasingly disenchanted with the DOB, in the early 1960s they dutifully attended the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) conference, which the DOB co-sponsored. It was at one of these conferences, either in 1963 or 1964, where the pair first encountered Kameny. Lahusen was the first to hear Kameny speak, and she was blown away by his ideas. Kameny believed that gays should be standing up and loudly demanding full equality. He thought gays and lesbians should actively refute the label of “sickness” placed upon them, and that gays should not assist the “powers that be” by entertaining the notion that homosexuality was a disease. He further argued that gays deserved what he referred to as “First-Class American Citizenship” and would often speak of “the homosexual American citizen” as a way of highlighting his belief that gay Americans deserved the full benefits of citizenship.

“We’ve been shoved around for three thousand years, and we’re tired of it,” Kameny said. “We’re starting to shove back. And we’re going to keep shoving back until we are guaranteed our rights! I say it is time to open the closet door and let in the fresh air and sunshine… it is time to hold up your heads and look the world squarely in the eye as the homosexuals that you are… confident in the knowledge that as objects of prejudice and victims of discrimination you are right and they are wrong!”

“Barbara, you have got to meet this guy,” Lahusen raved to Gittings as she practically dragged her across the conference hall. And so Gittings and Kameny became compatriots and lifelong friends. “Frank was a fantastic man,” Gittings would later reminisce. “He was a big influence on me because he had such a clear and compelling vision of what the movement should be doing and what was just.” Though Lahusen was always there documenting the movement from behind the lens of her camera, Gittings needed an accomplice who matched her wit, enthusiasm, and belief that gays needed to take on their oppressors in bold and public ways. Kamney was equally inspired by Gittings, affectionately and accurately referring to her as “the Mother of the Gay Rights Movement.”

Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings at the Pentagon, 1970. Photo via New York Public Library Digital Collections.

After meeting Kameny, Gittings and Lahusen 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. In reality, Gittings and Lahusen had outgrown the philosophy of the DOB, and producing The Ladder was no longer their primary objective. The pair had other battles to wage and were already engaged in direct action to achieve gay rights.

Gittings 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. Though she was certainly a feminist, Gittings was not a separatist. She saw the oppression she faced as a lesbian more pressing than the oppression she faced as a woman, and believed the Gay Rights Movement could best achieve its goals if gay men and lesbians fought shoulder-to-shoulder.

Gittings participated in the first picket of the White House for homosexual rights on April 17th of 1965. Wearing dark sunglasses and a conservative white blouse paired with a skirt, she marched in the picket line holding a carefully-lettered sign that read: “Sexual Preference is Irrelevant to Federal Employment.” Lahusen’s photograph of Gittings at the 1965 picket has become one of the iconic images of the Gay Rights Movement. Gittings also participated in the 1965 Annual Reminder Day, the first in a series of pickets organized by homophile organizations to remind Americans that gay people did not have basic civil rights, held in Philadelphia on July 4th. Following the Stonewall Inn Riots of 1969, the Annual Reminder Day would become Christopher Street Liberation Day, a precursor to today’s modern Pride celebrations.

Photo Credit: Kay “Tobin” Lahusen via New York Public Library Digital Collections.

As Gittings and Kameny protested, Lahusen was there with her camera documenting every move the fledgling movement made. These photographs stand as a testament to the fact that gay Americans engaged in militant direct action years before the events of Stonewall inspired a nationwide call to arms.

Continue to Part 2.

Like what you read? Give Jeffry J. Iovannone a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.