Remembering Barbara Gittings

Wayne DynesBarbara Gittings (1932-2007) was a major American activist for gay and lesbian rights, scholarship, and visibility.   From 1958 to 1963, she led the New York Chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the pioneering lesbian organization founded in San Francisco by Dell Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Barbara Gittings edited the national DOB magazine The Ladder from 1963 to 1966.  Her home in Philadelphia remained her base, though she was tireless in her willingness to travel for the cause to other centers, such as New York City and Washington, DC, where she worked closely with Frank Kameny.

Her determination to learn more about lesbianism fueled her lifetime work with libraries.  At the beginning of the 1970s she began to operate within the framework of the American Library association, joining the gay caucus there, which ranks as the first such caucus in a professional organization.

It was in this group that I first met Barbara Gittings.  I had been recruited by a close friend, Jack Stafford, who was a librarian at the Queens Public Library.  Oddly enough, at that time there were only a few gay and lesbian librarians who were willing to staff the group, soBarbara Gittings at the that outsiders had to come forward to pinch hit.  Barbara and I were two who filled the bill; but it was Barbara who excelled.

At the time most of the printed materials available in libraries were hostile books and articles by so-called experts, who insisted that we were sick individuals, misfits who had brought all our troubles on ourselves.  In the aftermath of Stonewall in 1969 some editors at mainstream trade publishers began trying to change this situation by commissioning positive books.  For her part, Barbara sought to make sure that these books were properly distributed and reviewed.  She also commissioned Jack Stafford to create a bibliography of positive materials.  After Jack died unexpectedly in 1973, Barbara reorganized the material into an eight-page circular.  Tens of thousands of these invaluable items were distributed to libraries, gay groups, and private individuals.  The fact that today young people can seek out GLBT information in libraries with confidence is largely due to this initiative.

My work on the project made a personal difference to me, because my continuing reflection on the matter led finally to my book “Homosexuality: A Research Guide” of 1987, fully annotated and still the largest work of its kind.  Some activists (like most people, I fear) are “underwhelmed” by bibliographies.  Such indifference is a mistake, because these research tools are vital underpinnings of any valid understanding of sexual orientation--and ultimately of the social and legal changes which were such a necessary component of the last fifty years.

In the fall of 1973 I persuaded Barbara to serve as a keynote speaker at convention of the just-organized Gay Academic Union at John Jay College in New York City.  The title of her presentation was “Take a Lesbian to Lunch.”  It was a humorous talk that addressed a serious problem, the shroud of invisibility that we had to contend with.  Even now, some of our “respectable” opponents insist that if only we would be quiet and remain in the closet, all would be well.  Barbara would have none of this.  She insisted that we activists must always be busy oiling the hinges of the closet doors so that everyone could come out.

Kay LahusenPerhaps Barbara’s most outstanding quality was her universality: she could talk to anyone and was not shy about doing so.  In part this ability stemmed from her family’s background in the diplomatic corps.  But it was also personal, relying upon her natural warmth and strength of character. 

Because of the Vietnam War and other issues, the 1970s, which saw the birth of the modern GLBT movement, were a very turbulent era.  From my vantage point in the New York Chapter of the Gay Academic Union I saw, close up, the conflicts between the radicals and the reformers, the hippies and the squares, and the separatists and the integrationists.  Only time could heal these splits, as it it did, but Barbara Gittings played a very important role in hastening our progress towards the relative unity we now enjoy.

Eventually, our paths diverged, and I saw little of Barbara Gittings in her later years.   Yet I was glad to have the assurance that she basked in the deep and sincere love of her partner Kay Tobin Lahusen.  They were together for forty-six years.

NOTE.  For a fuller portrait of Barbara Gittings, see Kay’s piece in Vern Bullough, ed., Before Stonewall, Binghamton, NY, 2002, pp. 241-52.  There is also a good entry in Wikipedia.

By Wayne Dynes

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