Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Gay rights pioneer Barbara Gittings dies


Lesbian pioneer Barbara Gittings. Photo: Courtesy Philadelphia Gay News
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One of the nation's earliest and longest serving gay rights activists has died. Barbara Gittings lost her battle with breast cancer in Philadelphia on Sunday, February 18. She was 75.

Ms. Gittings was instrumental in the early fight for lesbian rights, founding the New York City chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, which was started in San Francisco in 1956 by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. DOB was the first lesbian rights organization and an alternative to the bars, which were then subject to police harassment and raids. Sodomy was illegal in all 50 states until Illinois became the first to repeal its law in 1962.

Ms. Gittings established the New York City chapter of DOB in 1958 and was its first president. She served as editor of DOB's The Ladder , the first lesbian publication with national distribution, from 1963 to 1966.

Lyon said that she and Martin first met Gittings when she visited San Francisco in the late 1950s. They met again in New York in 1958 at the national convention of the early gay rights group the Mattachine Society, and that led to the founding of the NYC chapter of DOB. Lyon called Ms. Gittings "a really wonderful person who was very sharp and had a great sense of humor."

But it wasn't always a bed of roses. Ms. Gittings's delay in putting together a 1966 issue of The Ladder led Martin to pull the magazine from her control, and led to strained relations. The magazine was the only way to promote the upcoming DOB conference in San Francisco. It would prove to be a landmark event with unprecedented numbers of local officials addressing the LGBT community. Lyon said those wounds healed with time and they were in regular contact with each other over the years.

Ms. Gittings was among a handful of people who participated in the first public gay rights demonstrations. She picketed the White House, the Civil Service Commission, and the Pentagon. On July 4, 1965, she took part in the gay rights demonstration at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Gay icon Frank Kameny recalled her as being "one of the few activists who has been around longer than I." He founded the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1961 and does not remember how they first met. Kameny said he knows they had frequent interaction while Gittings was editor of The Ladder.

"Things were heating up but had not yet reached their peak" in 1965 in terms of social protest over civil rights and Vietnam, said Kameny.

"At that point, picketing at the White House was the expression of dissent par excellence," he said. It got so congested that police assigned groups particular spots in front of and along the sides of the White House compound.

"Those demonstrations put the issue of gay rights on the table in ways that it hadn't been done before," said Ken Sherrill, professor of political science at Hunter College. "They said that this was a fit subject for discussion."

San Francisco resident Tommi Avicolli Mecca met Ms. Gittings in Philadelphia not long after he came out in 1971, when she spoke at a gay liberation forum he helped organize at Temple University, where he was a student. The following year they worked on Philly's first gay pride march together. While the two didn't always agree politically, Avicolli Mecca said she made major contributions to the LGBT community.

"She and I had huge political differences, I being the more radical and she the more moderate," Avicolli Mecca said in an e-mail. "I was living in drag, she dressed very conservatively. I was a Marxist, she a Democrat. Still, we came to respect each other a whole lot over the years."

Avicolli Mecca credited Ms. Gittings with working tirelessly to "break the terrible silence that kept us queers in our closets."

Ms. Gittings served on the founding boards of directors of many organizations, including the National Gay [and Lesbian] Task Force (1973) and the Gay Rights National Lobby (1976), a precursor to the Human Rights Campaign Fund, now known as the Human Rights Campaign.

"She exuded this incredible warmth and friendliness," said Sherrill, adding that Ms. Gittings was the glue that helped keep together often-contentious organizations during the early phase of the movement. He first met Gittings through the founding of the short-lived Gay Academic Union in 1973. "She was a deeply principled, highly courageous person, but also warm and focused. If she had any enemies, I never met them."

Ms. Gittings was a librarian by profession and from 1971 to 1986 led the Gay Task Force of the American Library Association, editing gay reading lists such as the "Gay Bibliography."

In the pre-Internet days, the library was one of the main ways that young people could find out information about homosexuality, said Sherrill. "It was important to have materials about our lives and experiences available," he said. Ms. Gittings played a major role in making that possible, he added.

Kameny last saw Gittings in October when both were honored by the American Psychiatric Association for their work in getting the organization to "delist" homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973. He said she looked frail from the cancer therapy she was undergoing but she managed to keep herself amazingly active until the end.

HRC President Joe Solmonese praised Ms. Gittings for her decades of work that benefited the community. "Barbara Gittings was a true pioneer for our community," said Solmonese in a statement, adding that her impact on the lives of LGBT Americans has been felt for nearly five decades.

Ms. Gittings and her partner of 46 years, activist and historian Kay Tobin Lahusen, had moved to an assisted living facility in Kennet Square, Pennsylvania. It was at the facility that Ms. Gittings went into a coma Sunday morning; she died that evening with Lahusen at her side.

The ever-analytical Kameny called her "a very effective gay pioneer."

Most LGBT Americans probably came to know Ms. Gittings through her appearances in documentaries on the community such as Before Stonewall and Gay Pioneers . She was named one of the community's 40 heroes by the Equality Forum in 2005 when it held a 40th anniversary celebration of the July 4, 1965 gay rights demonstration in Philadelphia.

Gittings was born in Vienna, Austria, where her diplomat father was stationed, in 1932, and moved frequently as a child. During most of her school years, she and her family lived in Wilmington, Delaware.

In addition to Lahusen, Ms. Gittings is survived by her sister, Eleanor Gittings Taylor of San Diego. Lahusen asked that donations in Ms. Gittings's memory be made to Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. A memorial service is being planned.

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