JULY 31: Barbara Gittings (1932-2007)


One of the first presidents of the revolutionary lesbian organization The
Daughters of Bilitis, Barbara Gittings, was born on this day in 1932. Barbara
was also one of the first editors of the lesbian magazine The Ladder and a lifelong LGBT activist!

Captured by her partner Kay, Barbara Gittings smiles at her desk in 1958 (x). 

Born on July 31, 1932 in Vienna, Austria, Barbara’s father
was a U.S. diplomat and the family would end up moving around the globe throughout
her adolescence. In response to the outbreak of World War II, the family
finally settled down in Wilmington, Delaware. It was at school in Wilmington
when Barbara recalled hearing the word “homosexual” for the first time and being denied entrance into the National Honors Society for what her teachers
deemed “homosexual inclinations.” Despite her teacher’s beliefs, Barbara would
struggle with her sexuality well until her college career at Northwestern
University. While at Northwestern, Barbara began researching what it meant to
be a “homosexual”  and in the process, she found a passion in library studies. In a 2001 interview, she remembered only finding information
on abnormal psychology and thinking, 

“This is not about me. There is nothing
here about love or happiness. There has to be something better…My mission was
not to get a general education but to find out about myself and what my life
would be like. So I stopped going to classes and started going to the library.
There were no organizations to turn to in those days only libraries were safe,
although the information contained was dismal.“

Holding a sign that reads “Homosexuals should be judged as individuals,” Barbara participates in a picketing of the White House in 1965 (x).

At the age of 18,
Barbara’s father found a copy of The Well
of Loneliness
in her bedroom. After she refused to burn the book, she left
home, moved to Philadelphia, and began hitchhiking to New York City on a weekly basis to
partake in the gay nightlife. While on a trip to San Francisco in 1956, Barbara
came across Phyllis Lyon & Del Martin and their organization The Daughters
of Bilitis. Amazed at what she saw, Barbara immediately offered to begin a new
chapter of DOB in New York City. The new chapter was a success and Barbara
would serve as its president for three years before passing the mantle on. She
would also take up the mantle of editor for The
, DOB’s accompanying magazine, from Phyllis and Del. Having
officially entered the world of LGBT activism, Barbara would be front and
center at some of the earliest LGBT protests in American history, which
included picket lines at the White House and the State Department.

A 1989 interview with Barbara and Kay was featured in Season One of the critically acclaimed podcast Making Gay History, which you can listen to here! (x).

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Barbara spearheaded a
movement at the American Library Association to unearth materials that cast gay
men and lesbians in a positive light rather than the dismaying homophobic tone
she had once found in her own public libraries. She also fought the American
Psychiatric Association to erase homosexuality from the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual as a mental disorder, a battle which was achieved in 1973. After a
48-year long career in activism, Barbara Gittings passed away from breast
cancer on February 18, 2007. She was survived by her partner of over 40 years, Kay
Tobin Lahusen.