Barbara Gittings, a seminal gay activist, died on Sunday, Feb. 18. She was 75 and resided in Wilmington, Delaware. Her death was announced by her partner of 46 years, Kay Tobin Lahusen.
Malcolm Lazin, executive director of Equality Forum, noted, “Barbara Gittings is the mother of the GLBT civil rights movement. She is our Rosa Parks. Barbara helped organize the first gay and lesbian civil rights demonstrations in the face of a tsunami of homophobia. Her courage helped launch the GLBT civil rights movement.”
Barbara Gittings began her career in activism in 1958 when she founded the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian organization. She edited DOB’s national magazine The Ladder from 1963 to 1966. Describing those years, Gittings said, “There were scarcely 200 of us in the whole United States. It was like a club; we all knew each other.”
In 1965, Gittings marched in the first gay picket lines at the White House and other federal sites in Washington, DC to protest discrimination by the federal government. She joined other activists in the pioneering annual demonstrations for gay and lesbian civil rights held each July 4 from 1965 to 1969 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. These seminal yearly protests laid the groundwork for the Stonewall rebellion in 1969 and the first New York gay pride parade in 1970. Gittings’ role in these early protests is featured prominently in the Equality Forum and WHYY/PBS co-produced documentary, Gay Pioneers.
In the 1970s, Gittings campaigned with other activists to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders. She recruited “Dr. H. Anonymous,” a gay psychiatrist who appeared, masked, on a panel at the 1972 APA conference to tell his colleagues why he couldn’t be open in his own profession.
Gittings also crusaded to make gay literature available in libraries. Though not a librarian, Gittings found a home in the Gay Task Force of the American Library Association, the first gay caucus in a professional organization. She edited its Gay Bibliography and wrote a history of the group, Gays in Library Land. Her campaign to promote gay materials and eliminate discrimination in libraries was recognized in 2003 by an honorary lifetime membership conferred by the American Library Association.
For her lifetime of activist work, Gittings was selected as one of 31 leaders for GLBT History Month in October 2006.