Who Was the Mother of the Gay Rights Movement? (Part 2)
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.
“Don’t expect applause.”
— Buddhist slogan
“Gay, Proud, and Healthy”: Gittings and Kameny Challenge the APA
In 1952, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) published the first edition of its guide to mental illness, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-I), Barbara Gittings was just twenty years old. The manual, which was a scant 130 pages in length, attempted to provide standardized categories for mental health professionals to use when diagnosing mental illnesses. The DSM-I contained a section on “Sexual Deviation,” which included “pathological” behaviors such as homosexuality, transvestism, and pedophilia. In the second edition of the manual (DSM-II), published in 1968, homosexuality was given its own diagnostic code distinct from general “sexual deviation.” Some psychiatrists, such as Irving Bieber and Charles Socarides, built their careers on defining and “treating” homosexuality as a pathology. Working against the conservative backdrop of 1950’s America and McCarthyism, these psychiatrists saw homosexuality as a condition derived from improper parenting and skewed notions of gender roles that could be corrected through psychoanalysis and other invasive methods such as electro shock, insulin shock, or aversion therapies.
By the time she became a professional activist, Gittings, who had been reading medical and scientific theories about homosexuality for years, was well aware of the views of the psychiatric profession, as was Frank Kameny. Following Gittings’ stint with the DOB and her work with Kamney to challenge the federal government, the pair was ready to take on institutionalized homophobia within the APA. The activist and writer Dorr Legg, of ONE, Inc., referred to the medical establishment as one of the “four horsemen of the gay apocalypse,” along with society, the law, and religion. At the APA’s annual conference in 1970 gay activists, including Gittings and Kameny, mobbed a session on aversion therapy, wresting the microphone from presenters and demanding that psychiatrists stop talking about homosexuals and start talking with them. The APA met their demand and included a panel entitled “Lifestyles of Non-Patient Homosexuals,” which featured Kameny, at their 1971 conference in Washington, D.C. As an inside joke, Gittings and Lahusen referred to the panel as “Lifestyles of Impatient Homosexuals.” The panel significantly represented the first time the APA publicly acknowledged that there were gays and lesbians who were not in therapy and, in fact, had no need for it.
The following year marked a turning point in the way the APA viewed homosexuality. Gittings and Kameny organized a panel for the 1972 conference in Dallas, Texas entitled “Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to Homosexuals — A Dialogue.” The panel was slated to feature two heterosexual psychiatrists versus Gittings and Kameny. Kay “Tobin” Lahusen immediately objected. “This isn’t right,” she told Gittings. “Here you have two psychiatrists pitted against two gays and what you really need is someone who is both.” Gittings agreed, and she approached the panel moderator, Dr. Kent Robinson, who said a gay psychiatrist could be added if Gittings could find one willing to speak. Gittings, of course, knew gay psychiatrists — she was acquainted with the members of an informal group who humorously referred to themselves as the “GayPA” — but no one would speak openly on the panel for fear of losing their license to practice.
Finally, Dr. John Fryer agreed if he could participate in disguise. Frank Kameny did not like the idea. “This goes against everything we’ve been fighting for,” he told Gittings, but he relented when she said it was Fryer or no one. As it turned out, Fryer’s lover was in the theatre, so he concealed Fryer’s identity with a suit that was three sizes too large, a rubber mask, and a voice-distortion microphone. He was billed on the panel as “Dr. H. Anonymous.” Shortly before the panel was scheduled to begin, Gittings hustled Fryer through the back entrance and into the packed lecture hall. Fryer’s testimony was riveting despite his comical get-up. The audience was moved by his description of needing to remain in the closet out of fear of losing his practice, and to enhance his speech, Gittings read letters she had received from other gay psychiatrists.
At the 1972 conference, Gittings, Kameny, and Lahusen also 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. “Gay, Proud, and Healthy” achieved its goal and caught the attention of psychiatrists who were surprised by how happy and “normal” the couples in the photographs appeared, thus shattering their preconceived notions of gay relationships.
Over the next year, Gittings, Kameny, and Lahusen continued to make their case that homosexuality should be removed from the DSM. By 1973, the APA had been under pressure from gay activists for over two years. In May of that year, a secret meeting was held between Kameny, Ron Gold — the communications director of the newly-formed National Gay Task Force — Charles Silverstein, and Robert Spitzer, the editor of the DSM. The group drafted two resolutions: the first was a civil rights resolution that condemned discrimination against gay people and anti-gay laws; the second called for the APA to drop homosexuality as a diagnostic category from the DSM. Then, in December of 1973, the APA board of trustees, in a surprising move, voted to pass the two resolutions, effectively removing homosexuality from the DSM and declassifying it as a mental illness. Following the vote, a Philadelphia newspaper ran a story about the APA’s decision with a headline that read: “Homosexuals Gain ‘Instant Cure.’”
Gay activists would have to wait until 1980, when the DSM-III was printed, to see homosexuality officially removed from its pages. Following the APA’s vote to declassify, gay and lesbian psychiatrists began to come out within the profession, and gay exhibits became a permanent fixture at the annual APA conference. The theme of the 1978 display was entitled “Gay Love: Good Medicine.” Like the historic 1972 “Gay, Proud, and Healthy” display, “Gay Love” represented gay people as healthy and happy. Gittings was even able to secure the participation of five gay and lesbian psychiatrists.
Gittings, Kameny, and Lahusen knew they had won a major victory by challenging, and transforming, the institutionalized homophobia within the medical community. One of Dorr Legg’s apocalyptic horsemen had, for the time being, been defeated, or at least tamed into submission.
“Queer For Books”: Gittings Joins the ALA and Achieves a Coup
Throughout her years as a gay activist, Barbara Gittings never lost her identity as a voracious reader and a lover of the arts. She was, as a button she often wore proclaimed, “queer for books.” Though Gittings recognized the vital importance of taking on an institution such as the APA, she never lost sight of the significance of gay representation and correcting the “lies in the libraries” she first discovered as a college freshman. She would later explain her fixation on libraries as follows:
“For years I would haunt libraries and secondhand book shops trying to find stories to read about my people, and then I became active in other arenas of the Gay Rights Movement, but I always kept an eye on the emerging literature… It began to talk about homosexuals who were healthy and happy and wholesome and who had good lives… That rang the bells for me — libraries, gay books!”
As a lifelong bibliophile, Gittings never underestimated the power of books. She knew books had the ability to both uplift and undermine. Books could provide readers with community and life-affirming representations, or they could make people feel inferior and excluded when they saw themselves portrayed only in a negative light, or not portrayed at all. Gittings, however, was unsure how to tackle the issue of gay representation until, in 1970, she came across a news release for a newly created group within the American Library Association (ALA). Though she was not a librarian by training, she joined the Task Force on Gay Liberation (TFGL), a group of librarians who sought to create significant changes within the ALA. 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.
The TFGL was the first group of its kind and represented the first time gay people had banded together to advance gay rights through a particular profession. One of the group’s initial tasks was to compile an annotated bibliography of gay-themed books, articles, and pamphlets, which was printed under the title “A Gay Bibliography.” In 1970, the available sources that depicted homosexuality in a positive light could fit on a single letter-sized page. Gittings compiled the nonfiction section of the first version of the bibliography, which was released in January of 1971, and comprised of a total of thirty-seven entries. But the bibliography was no good if it wasn’t distributed and discussed. Gittings knew it was essential for the TFGL to be noticed and in a big way.
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 insteaded decided to make their presence known by showing gay love live. On the gray curtains on the back of the booth, they hung one sign which read “Men Only” and another which read “Women Only.” And there the TFGL members waited, ready to dispense free same-sex hugs and kisses. Few of the conference participants were brave enough to enter the booth, though a large crowd gathered outside, ogling the eight participating TFGL members as they hugged and kissed one another and called out to the crowd, encouraging them to join in. Ever the pioneer, Gittings started things off by kissing Isabel Miller (a pen name for the writer Alma Routsong), author of the classic lesbian novel Patience & Sarah, which depicts a romance between two women in mid-nineteenth-century New England. The group continued to hug and kiss one another as a photographer from Life magazine took pictures and two Dallas TV crews filmed, all the while passing out copies of their “Gay Bibliography.”
Needless to say, the TFGL succeeded in putting themselves on the map, though not without controversy. “I don’t see why those people are getting all the publicity when we have so many famous authors in town,” remarked one of the librarians attending the conference, in response to the television coverage of the kissing booth. The publicity was better than Gittings and the TFGL could have imagined, and continued to spark discussions within the ALA over the next year.
The work of the TFGL was also helped along by changes in the publishing industry that occurred in the post-Stonewall era. Gay people themselves began penning books on gay topics in record numbers, sometimes even forming their own small presses and publishing companies such as Naiad Press, one of the first publishing companies exclusively dedicated to lesbian literature. Naiad was co-founded in January of 1973 by Barbara Grier — the last editor of The Ladder — Anyda Marchant, Donna McBride, and Muriel Crawford. In 1973, it was not yet common for bookstores and libraries to carry overt lesbian materials, and in a controversial move, Naiad used the 3,800-member mailing list of The Ladder, which had recently gone defunct, to advertise and sell their books. Mainstream publishers also began to increasingly publish books on gay-related topics as they realized that gay people comprised a new market who were ready to consume books that spoke to their experience.
Within the ALA, the TFGL also created the Gay Book Award, the first of which was awarded to Isabel Miller in 1971 at the Dallas conference. In her acceptance speech, Miller remarked that the creation of the award “tells gay people something we’ve been needing to hear — that homosexuality is an interesting and valid source of subjects for artists, that it is worth the full concentration of artists, and that the true things we observe in it have a general meaning.” The Gay Book Award became an official ALA award in 1986.
The TFGL also continued to revise their Gay Bibliography, which grew in length each year. Libraries throughout the country — including the library at Northwestern— contacted the TFGL, requesting the bibliography and recommendations of gay resources. In 1971, Gittings achieved a coup of sorts when she was selected to succeed Israel Fishman as the coordinator of the TFGL, despite the fact she was not a librarian. Gittings served as coordinator of the TFGL — renamed the Gay Task Force (GTF) in 1975 in order to emphasize the word “gay” — until 1986.
In 1999, in honor of her contributions to create more visibility for gays and lesbians in libraries and in the profession, she 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.”
Gittings succeeded — with her trademark tenacity and playful approach to activism — in getting the lies, which she first encountered as a seventeen-year-old college student, out of the libraries. Though we still have much work to do when it comes to LGBTQ representation, today’s LGBTQ readers can more readily find what Gittings was denied: a positive and reinforcing view of their lives and experiences.
“Gay Dinosaurs”: Later Years
Shortly after the Stonewall Inn Riots of 1969, Gittings, along with with Kay Lahusen and Frank Kameny, attended a meeting of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), a militant leftist organization formed by younger activists in New York City. The trio was sorely out of place amidst the members of the group, who had long hair and were dressed in grimy blue jeans and T-shirts — the uniform adopted by most late-1960s radicals. When one of the GLF leaders asked what entitled them to be there, Gittings responded with outrage: “I’m gay, that’s what entitles me!” she told him. Another GLFer, who recognized Gittings and Kameny from their homophile activism, called them “dinosaurs” as a way of putting them in their place. Gittings and Lahusen took this in stride and began to bring stuffed dinosaurs with them to meetings of various gay organizations to signal that they were not going anywhere. If younger members of the movement saw them as “dinosaurs,” then why not turn the label into a joke, into something fun, just as Frank Kamney had created the motto “Gay Is Good” to reclaim homosexuality as something positive.
Within the history of social movements there is a tendency for younger activists to dismiss their predecessors as irrelevant, just as Gittings, Kameny, and much of the early Homophile Movement were dismissed by the GLF. From our contemporary standpoint, picketing the White House in skirts and suits, creating displays, and working with librarians to increase representation might not seem like radical activism. Yet, we must remember that these activists were navigating terrain no one dared chart before. What actions count as “radical” must always be contextualized. Things are deemed “radical” based on the extent they deviate from established norms, and norms are always in flux. In their uncompromising vision and persistent bold action, Gittings, Kameny, and Lahusen were certainly radical for their time, and we should reclaim them as such.
Gittings was also one of the first lesbians to be interviewed on national television at a time when homosexlas who appeared on TV would often wear paper bags over their heads to hide their identities, similar to “Dr. H. Anonymous” and his rubber mask. For Gittings to appear without disguise and use her real name on the David Susskind Show and Phil Donahue in the 1970s was truly courageous. Early homophile activists such as Gittings and Kameny made Stonewall possible by setting the precedent of gay people taking direct action on behalf of their civil rights and infiltrating, as ordinary citizens, professional organizations such as the APA and the ALA. Contrary to mainstream narratives, the Gay Rights Movement did not begin with Stonewall; rather, the events of 1969 marked a turning point that led to a sudden burgeoning of national grassroots activity. In light of the recent protests that erupted in response to Donald Trump’s decision to ban transgender Americans from serving in the military in “any capacity” on July 26th of 2017, the work of Gittings and Kameny made it possible for today’s LGBTQ activists and their supporters to challenge the federal government head on.
Though the movement underwent many changes since its beginnings in the 1950s, Gittings and Lahusen never stopped working on behalf of gay rights and devoted their energy to whatever was the next obstacle on the path to full equality. The pair amassed such a collection of materials from their life and work they had to rent a condo across the hall from the one they lived in to house their over 300-box collection. They donated their archive, which documents their involvement in the Gay Rights Movement from the 1960s up until 2007, to the New York Public Library.
Barbara Gittings died on February 18th, 2007 at the age of 74 after a long battle with breast cancer. In a 1999 interview with Leonard Kniffel, the editor of American Libraries magazine, she said she would like to be remembered as “someone who helped make complete turn-arounds in the attitude toward homosexuality in the library field and the field of psychiatry.” Frank Kameny, in his eulogy, described Gittings as having a “deep and total dedication to gay issues, to the gay community, and to the gay movement, of which she ultimately became, in effect, one of its Founding Mothers.” Matt Foreman, the executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, went on to ask those gathered, “What do we owe Barbara?” His response was “everything.”
During the last years of Gittings’ life, she and Lahusen closely followed the debates surrounding marriage equality. Unfortunately, she did not live to see the 2015 landmark Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-gender unions. Gittings is buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., where Lahusen will join her. Their monument reads: “GAY PIONEERS who spoke truth to power: GAY IS GOOD. Partners in life, Married in our hearts.” Gittings’ monument stands as a reminder that the LGBTQ community still does not possess the first-class American citizenship Frank Kamney spoke so eloquently about when Gittings and Lahusen met him in the early 1960s.
From the moment she discovered the “lies in the library” at Northwestern University, Barbara Gittings, along with her partners in crime Kay “Tobin” Lahusen and Frank Kameny, oiled the hinges of the closet door as fast as she could so that later generations could blow it wide open.