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date: 17 October 2019

Gittings, Barbarafree

(31 July 1932–18 Feb. 2007)
  • Marcia M. Gallo

Gittings, Barbara (31 July 1932–18 Feb. 2007), lesbian and gay rights activist, was born in Vienna, Austria, the third child of Elizabeth and John Sterett Gittings. Her father’s service in the U.S. Diplomatic Corps meant that Gittings and her family traveled widely; as a child she was educated abroad and encouraged to pursue her interests in music, singing, and theater. She also was expected to embrace her father’s devout Catholicism. In 1944, the family settled in Wilmington, Delaware, where Barbara attended the all-female Ursuline Academy, graduating in 1948. Although she excelled academically, she was denied admission to the National Honor Society because of “homosexual tendencies,” as one teacher explained it to her. This started her search for reliable information on same-1501413-sex attraction, which she began during her brief time at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Her quest for information overwhelmed her school assignments, and she returned to Delaware at the end of her freshman year, disgraced in the eyes of her family for failing her courses. Despite her embarrassment, she continued to utilize local libraries for her research, but the clinical treatises and condemnatory tomes she found did not fit her growing sense of herself.

As was true for many gay men and lesbians in the late 1940s, it was the gay fiction that she finally found that changed everything. Gittings’ explorations did not stop at books; she also had a short love affair while living in Wilmington with a woman she met in an Abnormal Psychology class. But the constant pressure to conform to her family’s expectations and values proved anathema and, in 1950, she rebelled and ran away to Philadelphia. She began to create an independent life, which included finding work in a music store and joining a choral group as well as scouting out gay bars there and in New York. She also continued her research. When she found a copy of The Homosexual in America, the groundbreaking 1951 book by Donald Webster Cory (the pseudonym of Edward Sagarin), which was the first to popularize the idea of gay people as a persecuted minority group, Gittings arranged to meet him. Their meeting led her to travel to California to investigate the nascent gay and lesbian organizations centered in Los Angeles and San Francisco: ONE, Inc.; the Mattachine Society; and the Daughters of Bilitis. The newest of the three, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), was started as a secret women’s social club by four lesbian couples in San Francisco in 1955.

Later in life, Gittings often told the story of walking into her first DOB meeting and being thrilled at seeing a room full of lesbians. By the time of her visit in the summer of 1956, the Daughters were making plans to expand their programs from women’s parties to serious discussion groups. In addition, they were developing a monthly publication. When the first issues of The Ladder were mailed out later that year, the monthly magazine not only promoted the DOB’s San Francisco events but provided a point of connection for women around the country, including Barbara Gittings. By the end of 1958, she and another DOB member convened the first meetings of a DOB chapter in New York. They held regular monthly business meetings and also started a chapter newsletter. They sponsored public discussions with sympathetic lawyers, doctors, and clergy, when they could find them, often teaming up with the local members of the mostly male Mattachine Society. DOB also helped Barbara Gittings find her most significant relationship. At a chapter picnic in Rhode Island in 1961, she met Kay (Tobin) Lahusen, beginning a partnership that would enrich them throughout their lives and entrench both of them in the gay rights movement. Lahusen’s contributions came not only from her organizational and editorial skills but also from her work behind the camera: she captured some of the earliest moments of gay activism in the 1960s and beyond. Meanwhile Gittings supported herself by doing office work.

In 1963, Gittings was asked by DOB’s national board to take on the editorship of The Ladder. She almost immediately set about transforming the publication—by now the DOB’s most important asset—into a small but significant magazine despite its modest circulation. Within a year, Lahusen’s photographs graced the front and back covers of the professionally-printed monthly magazine, and Gittings added the words “A Lesbian Review” underneath The Ladder’s title. By 1965, it was possible to go to a small number of newsstands and bookstores in a handful of American cities and see The Ladder displayed for sale. Its cover images were in stark contrast to the exaggerated depictions of sex-starved “lesbians” that adorned most mass-market paperback novels and magazines at that time.

In 1963, Gittings published an article by Frank Kameny, founder of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., whom she first met in 1961. She agreed with Kameny’s belief that gay people needed to become more aggressive in promoting their mental health and less apologetic about being gay, as well as his vision that gay activists should adopt the organizing strategies and tactics of the black civil rights movement. Gittings began to use the pages of The Ladder to air different sides of important issues, including articles in 1965 on gay pickets at significant national public sites, such as Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and the White House, the Pentagon, and the Civil Service Commission in Washington, DC, in which she herself participated. This debate over public demonstrations caused major dissension within DOB and, by 1966, despite increasing The Ladder’s readership significantly, Gittings was fired as editor.

Gittings turned her energies away from DOB but not from the nascent gay movement. She helped create the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, launched in 1966, and began lecturing to groups throughout the country. She devoted more of her time to working with Kameny, advising gay and lesbian employees of Defense Department contractors how to appeal revocations of their security clearances. She also took to the airwaves, serving as a newscaster on the groundbreaking show Homosexual News and Reviews on New York’s radio station WBAI and appearing on television shows hosted by Phil Donahue and David Susskind in 1970 and 1971, making her one of the first open lesbians to appear on nationally syndicated television. In 1973 Gittings joined the founding board of the National Gay Task Force (later the National LGBTQ Task Force); in 1979, she joined the first board of the Gay Rights National Lobby, the forerunner to the Human Rights Campaign.

In the 1970s, Gittings also took on a seemingly impenetrable fortress of prejudice against gays and lesbians: the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Again, she worked with Kameny and other activists both within and outside the APA to educate psychiatrists. At the 1972 APA annual conferences, she convinced “Dr. H. Anonymous”—Dr. John Fryer—to speak honestly (albeit in disguise) to his colleagues about his experiences as a gay male psychiatrist. The following year, the APA removed homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders. All of a sudden, as Gittings noted in the film After Stonewall, “we were cured!”

As a lifelong user of libraries, the next site of Gittings’ activism was especially fitting. In 1970, gay librarians within the American Library Association (ALA) began to organize. Gittings, though not a librarian, actively participated in the group’s early meetings as they became the Task Force on Gay Liberation. In 1971, she helped organize the infamous “Hug a Homosexual” display at the annual ALA meeting in Dallas, the gay movement’s first kissing booth, garnering national media attention. She worked for the next sixteen years to develop gay reading lists to distribute to librarians nationwide and to establish the Gay Book Award, which became an official award of the ALA in 1986. She treasured the coveted award of lifetime membership in the American Library Association presented to her in 2003. She also relished the special recognition she and Kameny were given by the American Psychiatric Association in 2006 for their contributions to the mental health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Despite the debilitating effects of cancer in the late 1990s and 2000s, Gittings continued to travel throughout the country, speaking to groups large and small and delighting in meeting new activists. She also kept building her collections of materials on the lesbian and gay rights movement. As one of her final acts before her death in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, she worked with Lahusen and a number of volunteers to organize and donate nearly three hundred boxes of materials—a treasure trove of gay history from the 1950s onward—to New York Public Library’s Archives Division. In doing so, she insured that future generations of young people searching for information about homosexuality, as she had done so diligently in the late 1940s and early 1950s, would find not only reliable information but also a valuable record of mid-twentieth century gay activism.


Primary source materials on Barbara Gittings can be found at the New York Public Library, Cornell University, and the William Way Community Center Library (Philadelphia). For additional information, see Vern Bullough, ed., Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context (2002); Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (1976); and Kay Tobin and Randy Wicker, The Gay Crusaders (1975). Gittings also is featured extensively in the documentary films Before Stonewall (1984), After Stonewall (1999), and The Gay Pioneers (2001). Secondary sources include Marcia M. Gallo, Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement (2007); Eric Marcus, Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights (2002); Marc Stein, City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945–1972 (2000); and Tracy Baim, Barbara Gittings: Gay Pioneer (2015). An obituary appeared in The New York Times on 15 Mar. 2007.