Because we were carried on the shoulders of giants: Barbara Gittings, 1932-2007

 

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“As a teenager, I had to struggle alone to learn about myself and what it meant to be gay. Now for 44 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.”

Barbara Gittings died three days ago, February 18, at the age of 75.

I just read the news today. On one hand, I’ll note that it was reported on the AP wire, and I see it was on various gay news sites, so it wasn’t a secret, I just didn’t see it.

On the other, when I think about all the various “mainstream media” items that have entered my consciousness unbidden during the last three days in relation to the significance of this one woman’s passing, it makes me even sadder.

I never met Barbara Gittings, though I remember tearing up, cheering and waving as the open car carrying Gittings and a handful of other surviving GLBT pioneers passed along the purple-striped parade route during Gay Pride in NYC.

It was, after all, only because of the old people in that car that we were all there to begin with. From the Dykes on Bikes that led off in the front (“Ladieeeeeees, start your engines!”), to the beautiful queens shaking it on the Puerto Rican float (always the best float to march behind—from Central Park West all the way down to the Village, you never once stopped dancing), to the queer parents pushing strollers, to the Gays and Lesbians of Samoan Descent. We had all gotten here on the shoulders of those giants from the decades before us.

It was thrilling to recognize Gittings’ face, familiar from every gay documentary I’d ever seen, smiling back at the adoring crowd. She had made a point of being recognizable—of being seen — for most of her life.

“Gay people didn’t have a face until Barbara started demonstrating in 1965,” said Mark Segal, publisher of Philadelphia Gay News. “Up until that point, no gay face had been seen in the newspaper, on television or in the movies.”

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I can’t for certain say that Barbara Gittings saved my life, though it’s certain there are lives, possibly thousands, that she did save, just by fearlessly living her own during a half century of gay activism. I can say, without qualification, my life and that of thousands of others, was made richer, fuller, healthier, happier, because of her pathbreaking example.

Gittings, 75, succumbed to breast cancer with her partner of 46 years, Kay Lahusen, by her side, he said. The couple, who also lived in Philadelphia, had a longtime home on Harrison Street in Wilmington.

In the late 1950s, Gittings helped organize the first East Coast chapter of the pioneer lesbian rights group, Daughters of Bilitis. Elected the New York City chapter’s first president, Gittings edited The Ladder, a ground-breaking lesbian publication, and went on to fight the federal government’s policy of firing homosexuals in its employ, according to Gay American History by Jonathan Katz.

It was through the New York City group that Gittings met Lahusen and, together, they “played important roles in the gay liberation movement emerging in the 1950s,” according to the Cornell (N.Y.) University Library, which has a collection about the couple in its Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

In the early days of gay activism, Gittings said in a biography she wrote for media use, “there were scarcely 200 of us in the whole United States. It was like a club — we all knew each other.”

In 1965, she gained international attention by helping organize and joining the first gay rights demonstrations at The White House and Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

“These were the first such demonstrations in American history and began an era of gays coming out of the closet,” Segal said.

Gittings headed the American Library Association’s Gay Task Force and was involved in the organization for nearly 20 years. “Though not a librarian,” the Cornell library says, “she was an avid book lover” and joined the task force as soon as she learned it existed.

Gittings also was a leader in the successful campaign that got the American Psychiatric Association, in 1973, to stop categorizing homosexuality as a mental illness.

She worked with Lahusen on her book, “The Gay Crusaders,” which was published in 1973.

Two years ago, Gittings and Lahusen attended the unveiling of the nation’s first official historic marker recognizing the gay rights movement. The Pennsylvania state marker, at Sixth and Chestnut streets in Philadelphia, across from Independence Hall, honors the early protests by Gittings and others, saying “these peaceful protests and New York’s Stonewall riots in 1969 & Pride Parade in 1970 transformed a small national campaign into a civil rights movement.”

She served on the boards of the National Gay Task Force, now the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, and the Gay Rights National Lobby, forerunner of the Human Rights Campaign.

She appeared in the documentaries “Out of the Past,” “Gay Pioneers,” “Before Stonewall” and “After Stonewall.”

She enjoyed giving a show-and-tell lecture, “Gay and Smiling: Tales from Our 55 Years of Activism” on the hidden history of the early gay movement.

 

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One Response

  1. A wonderful tribute.

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