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Gay Rights Pioneer Gittings Dies

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Barbara Gittings (right) and partner Kay Tobin Lahusen. This is probably the last image of them together. Photographer Patsy Lynch took this, upon their request, a few weeks ago on the day before Barbara moved into the assisted living center where she died on Sunday. Photo #2 Gittings in the July 4, 1965 demonstration outside Independence Hall. #3 Gittings (right) and Toni Armstrong, Jr. Photo by Tracy Baim. #4 Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny in Philadelphia, 2005. Photo by Tracy Baim


One of the most important pioneers of the modern gay and lesbian rights movement has died. Barbara Gittings, 75, passed away in Wilmington, Del., Feb. 18 after a long battle with breast cancer. Her death was announced by her partner of 46 years, Kay Tobin Lahusen, and her friend and fellow activist, Philadelphia Gay News Publisher Mark Segal.

Gittings was involved in several critical moments of the GLBT movement. Her first protest effort was in 1965 when she and a few other activists made history in the first public demonstrations for 'homosexual' rights, outside the White House in D.C. and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. She was featured in the documentary Before Stonewall. 'There were scarcely 200 of us in the whole United States. It was like a club; we all knew each other,' Gittings said of those early years.

'Things were heating up but had not yet reached their peak' in 1965 in terms of social protest over civil rights and Vietnam, said activist Frank Kameny after Gittings' passing. 'At that point, picketing at the White House was the expression of dissent par excellence.' 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,' added Ken Sherrill, professor of political science at Hunter College. 'They said that this was a fit subject for discussion.'

In the late 1950s Gittings helped organize the New York City chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis ( DOB ) , at the urging of the group's national founders, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. It was there Gittings met Lahusen. She was chapter president for three years and edited the national publication of DOB, The Ladder ( taking over for Lyons and Martin ) , from 1963-1966. She worked with her partner on The Gay Crusaders book in 1973. In her writing and her activism, Gittings challenged earlier gay-rights strategies that were against direct political action, a position which caused her to leave DOB.

Perhaps the most long-lasting impact of Gittings' decades-long work was in helping to change the American Psychiatric Association ( APA ) categorization of homosexuality as a mental illness, in 1973, and her work campagning for GLBT books in public libraries, as a leader of the Task Force on Gay Liberation of the American Library Association ( now called the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Round Table ) .

At a 1972 APA conference, Gittings recruited 'Dr. H. Anonymous,' a gay psychiatrist who appeared, masked, on a panel to tell his colleagues why he couldn't be open in his own profession. Gittings had joined the APA project at the urging of Kameny, also a pioneer of direct activism.

In her later years, Gittings continued to help push for GLBT rights, and she was honored by GLAAD, Equality Forum and other groups. In 2003 The American Library Association presented Gittings with its highest honor, a lifetime membership, and in 2006 she received an award from the American Psychiatric Association.

'When GLSEN Chicago premiered the documentary Out of the Past—a film profiling people who made great contributions to LGBT history, and following the rise of the present-day Gay-Straight Alliance movement—Barbara came as our honored guest speaker,' said Toni Armstrong Jr., a longtime Chicago activist now living in Florida. 'She was fond of saying she and her partner Kay were 'movement junkies,' and as long as the LGBT movement was still moving, she would be there.'

'Although Barbara was already ill and didn't even live in Chicago, she continued to be an enthusiastic supporter of GLSEN Chicago's work with young people. The Barbara Gittings Legacy Award scholarship was given out in her honor and with her blessing, providing youth recipients not only with cash, but also valuable items, LGBT memorabilia, handmade art, documentaries in which Barbara was featured, and offers of adult mentoring. Those of us who coordinated the Legacy Award, including Barbara, felt it was important not just to give young people money for their 'today'—the youth needed a sense of how they fit into the larger picture, and a sense that they themselves were making LGBT history in the grand sweeping tradition of Barbara Gittings.

'Barbara Gittings was, to my great fortune, the first lesbian I ever saw,' Armstrong continued. 'This was in 1971, when I was still in high school and had never yet heard a good word about gay people. I happened to tune into the David Susskind show, during a segment on 'Women Who Love Women.' Barbara made her famous statement: '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!' I completely believed her, and she has been my role model and guiding light since I was 17 years old. In later years we became friends, but she continued to be high on a pedestal for me, as an activist. As the editor of HOT WIRE lesbian magazine, I was further inspired by her work with the pioneering lesbian publication The Ladder. All that I wanted to do, she had done decades earlier—when it was so much scarier. I think in later years the two most important lessons she taught me directly were that LGBT activists need to work on many, many issues all at once—that way those who oppose us can't ever stop us all—and that you can have a lot of FUN the whole time you're being an activist.

'Whether they know it or not, whether they have heard of her or not, I believe every single gay person on the planet's life is better because Barbara Gittings was here. Whenever someone dies, the word 'beloved' gets thrown about, but in this case, it truly applies. She was as nice, generous, and upbeat as she was formidable, courageous, and effective. Legacies don't get much better than that,' Armstrong said.

Gittings was born in 1932 in Vienna, Austria, where her father was serving as a U.S. diplomat, according to Wikipedia. She attended Northwestern University, where she first discovered her sexuality—and first realized how few resources there were on the subject.

Gittings would serve 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.

'She exuded this incredible warmth and friendliness,' she was the glue that helped keep together often contentious organizations during the early phase of the movement, said Sherrill. 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.'

Donations can be made in Gittings' memory to Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

— Also contributing: Bob Roehr

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Barbara Gittings: Gay Pioneer 2015-06-24
Biography of gay pioneer Barbara Gittings out in time for Pride 2015-06-18
Barbara Gittings Way in Philly; Jane Lynch asks Atlanta Pride a favor 2012-09-18
In the Life honors LGBT pioneers Kameny, Gittings, Bond 2012-01-03
Community Remembers Gittings 2007-05-09
Tribute to Barbara Gittings 2007-03-07
Gay History Month: Barbara Gittings and Sgt. Leonard Matlovich 2006-10-04
Youth: The Barbara Gittings Legacy Award 2004-04-28
Barbara Gittings Honored by MCC 2003-06-25

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