Barbara Gittings is one of the single most important figures in American LGBTQ history.
Before Stonewall, Gittings was performing groundbreaking work for lesbian and gay people throughout the U.S. In one iconic photo of her, a 33-year-old Gittings pickets Independence Hall on July 4, 1966. She’s holding a sign that reads, “Homosexuals should be judged as individuals.”
It’s a striking image — Gittings in a sleeveless dress and sunglasses, looking like a 1966 soccer mom.
Less than a decade after her longtime partner Kay Lahusen took that photo, Gittings would get the American Psychiatric Association to drop homosexuality as a mental illness from its diagnostic manual — an incredibly important step toward equal rights.
Gittings described her life’s mission as shredding the “shroud of invisibility” that had cloaked lesbians and gay men for generations and refute the image of lesbians and gay men as criminals and perverts, and homosexuality as a mental illness.
Gittings was an iconoclast, a leader, a pioneer. Tall and sturdy, Gittings always looked serious, but she had a ready laugh and was quick to outrage for anything that oppressed those she called “my people.”
She favored embroidered blouses and corduroy pants and was devoted, utterly and implicitly, to lesbians and gay men and the cause of queer equality.
Born in 1932 in Vienna, Austria, the daughter of a diplomat in the Foreign Service, Gittings was always challenging the status quo. She was as radical as any ACT UP or Queer Nation activist at a time when there were a mere handful of out lesbian and gay men taking the kinds of risks she took.
Gittings said she first heard the term “homosexual” in high school when she was rejected for the National Honor Society despite being a top student. She said that the teacher told her she’d been rejected based on her “homosexual inclinations.”
The teacher was right that Gittings was gay, but the incident would stoke Gittings’ activism and her desire to prove homosexuals were no different from their heterosexual peers. In an Inquirer interview in 2001, Gittings described how she spent several years seeing a psychiatrist and then reading all there was on homosexuality in an attempt to understand — if not cure — herself. What she read was depressing and centered on gay men.
Gittings said, “I thought, this is not about me. There is nothing here about love or happiness. There has to be something better.”
There was — activism. By the 1950s Gittings was the editor of The Ladder, the first magazine for lesbians in the U.S. She founded the New York chapter of the lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis in 1958 and was its president for several years, until she became too political for the group. She then cofounded the Homophile Action League in Philadelphia, with her life partner, Lahusen.
In the era in which Gittings had come of age — the pre-Stonewall, pre-Internet, pre-LGBTQ-plus era — there was a vast closet filled with queer people asking “Am I the only one?” Gittings was out, in public, in broad daylight, in front of Independence Hall, the White House and the Lincoln Memorial, carrying placards declaring that not only was she one, but the one of which she was should be treated equally under the law.
Gittings said in a 1982 interview, “I joined the movement in 1958, when the subject of homosexuality was still shrouded in complete silence. There were no radio talk shows or TV documentaries. In all the United States, there were maybe a half dozen groups, 200 people active in all.”
A heady image when in 2019, the Equality Act was just passed in the House and not expected to pass the Senate.
In 1999, Gittings described her life of activism: “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!”
Her activism was risky, and it was serious.
Gittings’ cohort and visual biographer was her partner, Lahusen. The photographs she took spanning nearly 50 years are now archived in the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library. They detail Gitting’s activism, the burgeoning gay liberation movement (when lesbians were not yet included in the name), the couple’s relationship and the major events that occurred throughout the period of Gittings’ activism.
A few years post-Stonewall, Gittings decided to take on the APA. She had never found convincing evidence that gay people were mentally ill, and she devised a plan to prove they were not at the annual conference in Philadelphia.
Gittings believed that The Ladder should have been used to address the “experts” who defined homosexuality as a mental illness and who Gittings asserted were the foundation for anti-gay attitudes in society.
A 1964 report from the New York Academy of Medicine had called homosexuality a “preventable and treatable illness.” Gittings queried that presumption by the NYAM, writing, “It’s a reminder of the sly, desperate trend to enforce conformity by a ‘sick’ label for anything deviant.”
Gittings wrote to the NYAM on The Ladder’s stationery, challenging them on their labeling of homosexuality. This was the first time anyone had done so. Gittings’ letter was reprinted in The Ladder: In her letter, she wrote:
“I keep trying to convince people in the movement that the charge of sickness is perhaps our greatest problem … we can’t really progress in other directions until the unsubstantiated assumption of sickness…is demolished! It’s almost always there, however slyly or covertly or even unconsciously, however ‘sympathetic’ the person: the attitude that homosexuality is somehow undesirable, some sort of twist or malfunction or failure or maladaptation or other kind of psychic sickness. And in our society sick people, by any definition of sick, just DO not get equal treatment. Equal treatment — no more, no less — is what we want! And compassion — which many homosexuals gladly swallow because they think it represents an improvement in attitudes toward them — is not equal treatment.”
Then, she began the public fight she’d been waging behind the scenes for a decade. She bought a booth at the APA convention in 1972 with the banner “Gay, Proud, and Healthy: The Homosexual Community Speaks” and organized lesbians and gay men to kiss at the booth.
Gittings also secured a position for herself and fellow activist Frank Kameny on a panel about homosexuality at that 1972 convention, and she found a gay psychiatrist, Philadelphia’s Dr. John Fryer, for the panel that also included two heterosexual psychiatrists.
Gittings was responsible for many other actions before and after, but none with the incalculable impact of getting homosexuality removed from the DSM which has benefitted every queer American in the decades since.
Gittings made myriad other inroads — protesting the firings of federal workers for being gay in the 1950s and 60s. She forced the American Library Association to address lesbians and gay men in books, and an ALA literary award is named after her.
Kameny called her the mother of the movement, and she was definitely that: an omnipresent activist who fought her entire life so that “her people” could be themselves in the sunlight. She died at her home outside Philadelphia February 18, 2007 after a long battle with breast cancer.