photo by Nancy Tucker

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Barbara Gittings (1932- )

As a student at Northwestern University in 1949, Barbara Gittings was coming to terms with her feelings for other women. With no one to talk to about it, she went to the library to try to learn about lesbians and homosexuality. Every book that she found referred to homosexuality under "sexual perversion," or "abnormal" sexuality, but Gittings wasn't ready to accept that verdict.

"Everything I found was so alien, so remote," she said some years later. "It didn't give me any sense of myself or what my life and experience could be." Barbara Gittings spent much of the rest of her life forging a new path for lesbians and gay men, creating a new visibility to make sure that other people would have models to look to as they first explored their homosexuality.

Gittings dropped out of Northwestern and returned home in disgrace, unable to tell her family what was troubling her. Over the next few years she sought out other gay people, but it wasn't until 1956 that she found the community and the cause that would help her find her calling. On a trip to California, Gittings met the leaders of a new women's "homophile" group called the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), who were beginning an effort to change society's ideas about homosexuals.

In 1958 Gittings founded the first East Coast chapter of the group, and eventually became the editor of The Ladder, the DOB's magazine. As editor, she pushed for greater visibility, adding the words "A Lesbian Review" to the title, and eventually persuading group members to come out in photographs published on the cover. Her vision for the magazine brought her into conflict with the DOB's governing board, whose members were not convinced that the time was yet right for her tactics. Gittings lost the editorship in 1966.

photo by Nancy Tucker
Gittings had already begun a new phase of her work, however. In partnership with Frank Kameny--who had lost his government job because of President Eisenhower's order banning gay men and lesbians from federal employment-- Gittings began publicly picketing government offices in 1965, demanding civil rights for gay men and lesbians. In some of the first public gay-rights demonstrations ever, Gittings, Kameny, and others picketed the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Gittings also took on the psychiatrists, running exhibitions at American Psychiatric Association (APA) conferences to illustrate the full range of lesbian and gay life to doctors who had been trained to think of homosexuality as an illness. Her work was part of a larger effort that led, in 1973, to the APA removing homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders. Gittings then focused on work with the American Library Association, in order "to counter the lies in the libraries about homosexuality, so that gay people will no longer be assaulted or bewildered or demoralized by almost everything they read on the subject." She was also on the founding board of the National Gay Task Force (now known as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, or NGLTF).

Gittings took chances that created new public images of gay men and lesbians, providing a human face for others to look to as they come to terms with their own sexuality. In 1971, on a nationally-broadcast television program, Gittings voiced the central premise of gay liberation before an audience of millions: "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're going to be!"

Source: Miller, Faderman 91, Tobin/Wicker