Barbara Gittings was born in 1932 in Vienna, Austria. Barbara and her siblings attended Catholic schools in Montreal. She was so immersed in Catholicism at one point in her childhood that she even considered becoming a nun.
Her family returned to the United States at the outbreak of World War II and settled in Wilmington, Delaware. Although aware of her attraction to other girls, Gittings said she first heard the word “homosexual” when she was rejected for membership to the National Honor Society in high school. Despite being an excellent student, a teacher who had reservations about her character took her aside and told her that the rejection was based on what the teacher believed were “homosexual inclinations”.
While majoring in drama at Northwestern University, Gittings developed a friendship with another female student, but rumors started to spread that the two were lesbians, which although not true, led Gittings to examine her own sexual orientation.
In her attempts to understand it, she went to a psychiatrist who confirmed her suspicions and actually offered to cure her. We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again, homosexuality is not something to be cured.
Not having enough money to make regular visits, and unable to get the money from her father, because his view was there were no problems a psychiatrist could solve that a priest could not. It was suggested they see less of each other so as not to further encourage the rumors about them.
Having no one to talk to about the issues that were starting to consume her, she decided to take matters into her own hands and tried to read up as much as she could on the topic. Although, because of the times, she found very little, and much of what she found described homosexuals as “deviants”, “perverts”, and “abnormal”, or she found odd generalisations that stated homosexuals were unable to whistle, or that their favorite colour was green.
She found out that all the information was just focused on homosexual men. In a 2001 interview she said, “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 she ended up failing out of Northwestern University. But Barbara Gittings found a different purpose during this time, saying “My mission was not to get a general education but to find out about myself and what my life would be like. So I stopped going to classes and started going to the library. There were no organisations to turn to in those days, only libraries were safe, although the information only contained the horrors of the lifestyle.”
At 17, she returned from college “in disgrace”. After failing out of school and unable to tell her family why. But she was so compelled to continue her search for information. This “disgrace” didn’t stop her and she went onto finding some novels available at the time: Nightwood, The Well of Loneliness, and Extraordinary Women were just some of them.
But her father soon discovered The Well of Loneliness in a pile of other things in her bedroom. After reading some of it, he was so appalled at what he found that he instructed her to burn the book. But, he told her this in a letter as he was so ashamed of her that he was unable to speak to her about it face to face.
This still didn’t stop her though. She was still so eager to learn more about homosexuality, that Gittings started to take a night course in “abnormal psychology” to learn more. Whilst she was there she met a woman, who she was so infatuated with that she had started her very first brief affair.
At age 18, sick of the shame and disappointment from her father, she left home to be on her own and moved to Philadelphia. Gittings began to hitchhike on weekends to New York City, dressed as a man to visit gay bars, as she knew of none in Philadelphia, and knew of no other places to go to get “plugged into the gay community.”
In a 1975 interview for The Gay Crusaders, she recalls this by saying, “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 personal 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 beaten up after leaving a bar, she began to focus her energies on collecting books and research instead.
Barbara Gittings is regarded as the mother of the LGBT civil rights movement and here is why.
In the 1950s gay activism was in its very early years. “There were scarcely 200 of us in the whole United States,” Gittings said. “It was like a club—we all knew each other.”
Although Gittings lived in Philadelphia, in 1958 she started her activism in New York, with the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). Founded in San Francisco, the DOB was the first lesbian civil rights organisation in the United States. From 1963 to 1966, Gittings was the editor of the DOB’s publication, “The Ladder,” which was the first national lesbian magazine.
With fellow organizers Frank Kameny (from Washington D.C.) and Craig Rodwell (from New York), Barbara Gittings helped enlist activists for the seminal demonstrations that called for gay and lesbian equality. Held in front of Independence Hall each Fourth of July from 1965 to 1969, these protests, known as Annual Reminders, paved the way for the Stonewall rebellion in 1969. At the 1965 Annual Reminder, 40 brave openly gay picketers carried signs demanding equality. By 1969 their numbers had more than tripled.
Whilst she was doing this, she met her love of her life and life partner of 46 years, Kay Tobin Lahusen. They met in 1961 at a picnic in Rhode Island. Gittings described how they began: “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 did not care what the world thought. I dropped the flowers, grabbed her and kissed her. That was not being done in 1961.”
Right, let’s get back to her amazing activism.
After 1969, Kameny, Rodwell, Gittings and others suspended the Annual Reminders in order to marshal support for a 1970 march commemorating the first anniversary of Stonewall. Proceeding from Greenwich Village to Central Park, it is remembered as the first New York City Pride Parade.
Gittings and Kameny waged a multi-year campaign for the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. In 1970, The Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance demonstrated at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
The next year, Gittings, Kameny and fellow agitators stormed the meeting. Kameny seized the microphone, demanding to be heard.
She recruited Dr. H. Anonymous (who turned out to be John E. Fryer, M.D.). He would appear masked and use a voice modulator. This way, Gittings, Kameny and Dr. Anonymous could assert that the disease was not homosexuality, but toxic homophobia. It was successful in the sense that the APA formed a committee to determine whether there was scientific evidence to support their conclusion.
Barbara Gittings made an appearance on The Phil Donahue Show in 1970 and on PBS’ David Susskind Show in 1971, along with six other lesbians, including Lilli Vincenz and Barbara Love.
They were among the first open lesbians to appear on television in the US, and debated long-held stereotypes about gays with Susskind. This segment is remembered for Gittings saying, “Homosexuals today are taking it for granted that their homosexuality is not at all something dreadful – it’s good, it’s right, it’s natural, it’s moral, and this is the way they are going to be!”.
A week after this appearance on the David Susskind Show, a middle-aged couple approached Gittings in the supermarket to claim, “You made me realise that you gay people love each other just the way Arnold and I do.”
They decided they need someone with a medical voice to come forward and to speak out but when no gay psychiatrist would serve on it openly for fear of losing his medical license and patients, Barbara Gittings came up with a brilliant plan.
In 1973, Gittings and Kameny were invited by the APA, where they announced it’s removal of the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. Kameny described it as the day “we were cured en masse by the psychiatrists.”
At the time, the “cures” for homosexuality included electric shock therapy, institutionalisation and lobotomy. [Sign our petition to ban conversion therapy in the UK.] With the APA’s retraction, the gay rights movement was no longer encumbered by the label and its consequences.
Gittings also successfully crusaded to promote gay literature and eliminate discrimination in the nation’s libraries. She volunteered with the Gay Task Force of the American Library Association, the first openly gay person in a professional organisation.
Although not a librarian, she soon became the group’s coordinator—a position which she held for an amazing 16 years. Gittings edited the Task Force’s bibliography and wrote “Gays in Library Land,” a history of the group and what they are about. The American Library Association awarded her a lifetime membership for her work and efforts.
In 1991, Gittings remembered her decisions to be as open as she was throughout her life when she said, “Every time I had to make a decision to put myself forward or to stay back, to use my real name or not, to go on television or decline, to get out on some of the earliest picket lines or remain behind. I usually took the public position because there weren’t many of us yet that could afford the risk.”
Barbara Gittings appears prominently in “Gay Pioneers,” a documentary co-produced by PBS and Equality Forum. In 2001, the Free Library of Philadelphia established the Gittings Collection of Gay and Lesbian Materials at its Independence Branch. With over 1500 items, it is the second largest assemblage of its kind in a public library.
In 2005, a Pennsylvania Historical Marker commemorating the Annual Reminders was erected across from Independence Hall to honour the contributions of the Gay Pioneers—Gittings, Kameny, Rodwell and others. In 2006, Gittings, along with Frank Kameny, received the APA’s first annual civil rights award, which was named in memory of Dr. John Fryer.
In 2007, readers of The Advocate included Gittings on a list of their 40 favorite gay and lesbian heroes.
Barbara Gittings and her partner Kay Tobin Lahusen donated copies of some materials and photographs covering their activism to the Cornell University Rare and Manuscript Collections. In 2007, Lahusen donated all of their original papers and photographs to the New York City Public Library (NYPL), whose head, Paul LeClerc, said, “The collection donated by Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen is a remarkable first-hand chronicle detailing the battles of gays and lesbians to overcome the prejudice and restrictions that were prevalent prior to the activism and protest movements that started in the 1960s.”
One of her last acts as an activist was to come out in the newsletter published by the assisted living facility they reside in.
On 18th February 2007, Barbara Gittings sadly died in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania after a long battle with breast cancer.
Gittings summed up her inspiration for her activism with this “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!”
Barbara Gittings’ Legacy
Right, let’s talk about the legacy she continues to have on the world.
On 1st October 2012, the city of Philadelphia named a section of Locust Street “Barbara Gittings Way” in Gittings’ memory.
Also in 2012, she was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display which celebrates LGBT history and people.
And In June 2019, Gittings was one of the inaugural fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument (SNM) in New York City’s Stonewall Inn. This was alongside previous people we have covered including: Audre Lorde, Gilbert Baker, and Christine Jorgensen. The SNM is the first U.S. national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history, and the wall’s unveiling was timed to take place during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
And that is the incredible story of Barbara Gittings.
You can find out more about Barbara Gittings on the podcast: