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Lesbian pioneer Barbara Gittings dies
Lesbian pioneer Barbara Gittings dies
by Ruth Pettis - Special to the SGN

Lifetime Lesbian activist Barbara Gittings died in Pennsylvania on Sunday, February 18th, after a long bout with breast cancer. She was 75.

Gittings was among the first group of Americans to demonstrate for Gay rights back in the 1960s. She crusaded to abolish the stigma of homosexuality as a mental illness and championed access to positive information about Gayness in schools and libraries.

Born the daughter of an American diplomat in Vienna in 1932, Gittings came of age in Delaware in the 1950s. While a student at Northwestern she tried to make sense of her same-sex crushes by devouring all she could find on homosexuality in psychological and legal literature. Through a meeting with Edward Sagarin, author (as Donald Webster Cory) of The Homosexual in America, in 1956 she found her way to ONE Incorporated in Los Angeles, and from there to the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco and never looked back.

In 1958 she established D.O.B.'s New York chapter and from 1963 to 1966 she edited its publication The Ladder. It was through D.O.B. in 1961 that she met her life partner Kay Tobin Lahusen, one of the founders of the Gay Activists Alliance. They based themselves in Philadelphia and Wilmington and became a tireless team in the emergent Gay rights movement of the 1960s.

In Making History (1992) Eric Marcus says of Gittings that she was "out in the streets years before most of the Gay liberationists were out of high school." Gittings and Lahusen were a tireless team in homophile organizations but both grew impatient w. D.O.B.'s non-confrontational approach of cultivating acceptance. Through their friendship with scientist and activist Frank Kameny they adopted the more direct stance of claiming rights as a legitimate minority group.

With Kameny's group in 1965 they picketed in front of the White House against discrimination in federal employment, and started annual July 4th demonstrations at Philadelphia's Independence Hall.

In Jeff Dupre's documentary Out of the Past (1998) Gittings recalls, "It was really risky to do. Most people couldn't afford to do it, so the picket lines were very, very small. However, those people who took part would say, 'I now feel like a full human being&. I'm standing up for myself. I'm no longer going to live a life of secrecy and pay the toll that that exacts'."

In 1970 Gittings joined the American Library Association's Social Responsibilities Round Table and ran its Task Force on Gay Liberation for 15 years. She compiled its first reading list of positive writings about Gays, which in 1970 amounted to 32 entries and fit on one sheet of paper. Over the years the Task Force's bibliographies have burgeoned into standard resources for guiding library patrons toward reliable information.

In a much-publicized embrace at the Task Force's "kissing booth" at the 1971 ALA convention, Gittings and Patience and Sarah author Alma Routsong claimed some very public space for same-sex affection.

It was also in 1971 that Gittings and Kameny took on the American Psychiatric Association. Gittings recalled, "The sickness label infected everything we said and made it difficult to gain any credibility&. We had to get rid of [it] because everything you said could be attributed to your sickness."

Gittings spoke at APA panel discussions and lobbied conventioneers with an exhibit titled "Gay, Proud and Healthy." Said Gittings, "It was the first time that the psychiatric profession recognized that there were Gay people who were not in therapy and who don't have a need for it, and that was a breakthrough."

Two years later the APA removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders. In Out of the Past Gittings observed, "I think we knew that we were making history because everything we were doing in the early years of the movement was being done for the first time. We were testing the unknown."

Gittings was a staunch believer in visibility. "The real world includes us, and the more that we are visible, the more it will be impossible to leave us out of the official picture of life that is presented in the school books. I don't want to see people go through what I went through as a young person, groping all by myself to find my way to Gay people -- in absolutely dead silence. I want to make sure that every child in the future who is going to be Gay can grow up learning that being Gay is happy and healthy and normal, and they can be themselves."

In her interview with Eric Marcus she said, "I love being part of a special people. I think Gays are a special people. & There is something innately different about us. I prize it. I value it. & It gives us that special bond that's very enriching to me."

She is survived by Lahusen and a sister, Eleanor Gittings, of San Diego. A very touching tribute is being compiled online at: http://www.rainbowhistory.org/gittings.htm

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