“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
Barbara Gittings, 75, founder of the first East Coast chapter of Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization in the United States, has passed on. She was the fearlessly militant Editor and Publisher of The Ladder, the publication of Daughters of Bilitis, and transformed it into a cutting edge lesbian magazine during the late 60s, adding the subtitle, “A Lesbian Review” to the publication title and featuring prominent lesbians on the cover.
Gittings was a lifelong lesbian and gay rights activist, beginning in the 1950s, when visibility was treacherously risky and dangerous. She stressed the importance of public visibility for gay and lesbian people as critical to liberation, and worked with both the American Library Association and the American Psychiatric Association to promote positive portrayals of lesbian women and gay men. As an APA panel member in the 1970s, she was tireless in her insistance that lesbianism was not a disease and that the APA must change its stand, bringing the issue to a head when, with gay activist John Kameny, she arranged for a closeted gay psychiatrist from Philadelphia to speak at the 1972 APA convention as “Dr. Anonymous,” wearing a full face mask and wig. The next year, the APA removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
Barbara Gittings and author Isabel Miller at the Task Force on Gay Liberation’s “Hug a Homosexual” kissing booth at the 1971 ALA Annual Conference.
One of Gittings’ proudest achievements was what she called “combatting lies in the library.” Gittings had experienced her first attractions to women when she was in high school. She was denied membership in the National Honor Society by an advisor who said she had “homosexual tendencies,” and had been told by her father, with whom she was close, to destroy the book The Well of Loneliness which he found in her bedroom when she was in high school. Determined to understand her own path, she spent most of her freshman year at Northwestern University in the library instead of in class, searching for books and information about being a lesbian. What little she could find was catalogued under “sexual perversion” and “sexual deviance.” She dropped out of Northwestern then to pursue the life of an activist and never returned to get her degree.
In 1971, when she learned the American Library Association was putting together a bibliography on gay and lesbian subjects, she went to the meeting, even though she wasn’t a librarian. That same year, she helped to set up a “Hug a Homosexual” kissing booth at the ALA National Convention to draw attention to lesbian and gay literature, and ended up on the evening news, a groundbreaking event in the history of gay and lesbian rights. In an interview, she said:
We needed to get an audience. So we decided… let’s show gay love live. We were offering free—mind you, free—same-sex kisses and hugs. Let me tell you, the aisles were mobbed, but no one came into the booth to get a free hug. So we hugged and kissed each other. It was shown twice on the evening news, once again in the morning. It put us on the map.
Later she participated in the American Library Association’s Gay Task Force and worked to make lesbian- and gay-friendly books available to the masses. By the end of her 15-year tenure in 1980, the ALA bibliography on gay and lesbian subjects had grown from a few to 563 items. The Barbara Gittings Lesbian Collection of circulating materials opened at the Philadelphia Public Library’s Independence Branch in 2001, and in 2003, The ALA awarded her its highest honor, an honorary lifetime membership.
Gittings and and her partner of 46 years, Kay Tobin Lahusen, sacrificed material wealth and societal privilege for a lifetime of social activism on behalf of lesbian women and gay men. Of their relationship, Gittings said in an interview:
[We met in] 1961 at a picnic in Rhode Island. We hit it off, we started courting. I flew to Boston [to see her] and got off the plane with a big bunch of flowers in my hand. I couldn’t resist. I didn’t care what the world thought. I dropped the flowers, grabbed her and kissed her. That was not being done in 1961.
This is really the secret of our battle for equality. We want to be treated just the same as others. You know that kissing booth wasn’t only a public stunt. It gave the message that gay people should not be held to double standards of privacy. We should be able to show our affections.
Barbara Gittings had a particular interest in communicating to the world that lesbian women and gay men are happy with their lives, happy to be the people they are, loving the people they love, that they have nothing to mourn and nothing for which to apologize. After Gittings had been denied membership in the National Honor Society in high school for her “homosexual tendencies,” she had gone to a psychiatrist to find out whether she was a lesbian. The psychiatrist said that she was. She declined treatment. 😀 She came into conflict with some leaders of the Daughters of Bilitis around issues of visibility and self-acceptance. DOB’s view was that lesbians should be integrated into society and should present in ways which would be likely to ensure their acceptance. Gittings’ view was that lesbians were acceptable just as they were, having rejected gender and gender stereotypes, and that it was society that needed to change, not lesbians. Gittings’ central focus was not on the oppression of lesbians, per se, or on women’s oppression, per se; she was critical of the notion of “women-identified women” and of the oft-quoted line that a lesbian is “the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion,” which Gittings she thought wrongly depicted loving women as “an unhappy by-product of a sexist cultural set up.” (1) In the late 60s and early 70s, the Daughters of Bilitis and the primarily male gay rights group, The Mattachine Society, had worked together as allies. As the Women’s Liberation movement grew, it became apparent that gay men were not necessarily interested in activism around women’s issues. However, some leaders in the early Women’s Liberation movement feared the involvement of lesbians would hinder the pursuit of equal rights for all women, and a few were openly homophobic, resulting in a crossroads for lesbians in which they had to decide whether they would align with feminists, some of whom were rejecting them outright, or whether they would continue to align with the predominantly gay men’s movement, which often gave women’s issues short shrift. Gittings chose the latter.
In an article Gittings and her partner contributed to a book I have and very much appreciate entitled Our Right to Love — A Lesbian Resource Book, published in 1978, she and her partner wrote, in an essay entitled “The Gay and Lesbian Movement”:
Rage, reaction, rebellion? These aren’t the central stuff of the lesbian experience. Knowing the traditional female role isn’t right for her — that’s different from raging and rebelling against it — the lesbian is automatically freed up to invent her own way and be her own person. She doesn’t need to join a pack and trade in her satisfying sense of self for a nebulous group consciousness…
Social scientists are beginning to confirm what most lesbians have known all along: that lesbians along with gay men, generally feel quite good about themselves and enjoy a heightened sense of personal strength and autonomy and freedom…
We believe in a united front. With so much work to be done — on job discrimination, psychiatric views, the law, the media, religious attitudes, the literature and much more — the movement needs diversity but can ill afford divisiveness…
The gay movement should be a better place for lesbians to go for friendship and love as well as for constructive work to end the bigotries and barriers against gay people. And, in the main, it is.
This quote notwithstanding, one interviewer said of her:
Gittings had a reputation as one of the nicest, sweetest people in the often fractious LGBT movement, but she also had a great sense of humor. When she was once asked why men were not permitted as members of the Daughters of Bilitis, she replied that they did have honorary male members whom they call the Sons of Bilitis or “S.O.B.”
Gittings was with her partner at their home in an assisted living facility when she fell into a coma Sunday morning. She had breast cancer.
A memorial service is currently being planned.
Donations in Gitting’s memory can be made to Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, an organization that defends GLBT civil rights, 120 Wall Street, Suite 1500, New York, NY 10005-3905, http://www.lambdalegal.org or (212) 809-8585.
(1) Our Right to Love: A Lesbian Resource Book, Ed. by Ginny Vida, Prentice-Hall, New York, 1978
Thanks to Amazon Rage of Lesbians Outloud for the heads up.