Fighting for Freedom in Philadelphia: Barbara Gittings, 1932-2007

I spoke yesterday at a memorial service for Barbara Gittings in Philadelphia. Many of you may not recognize the name of this legendary activist, which is too bad because, as he put it in his remarks, my friend Matt Foreman (Executive Director of NGLTF, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force) said of her contributions "What do we owe Barbara? Everything."

Barbara's story is told in many places, including the Sundance Award-winning documentary Out of the Past, on which I was a writer and producer. In short, Barbara was one of the first organizers for lesbian and gay rights in America, beginning with her work with the first-ever lesbian rights group, the Daughter of Bilitis, in the late 1950s. Barbara would go on to (among other things): edit the magazine The Ladder (the first lesbian magazine in the US); take part in the first picket for gay rights outside the White House in 1965 (and organize similar marches outside Independence Hall each July 4 in Philadelphia, years before the 1969 Stonewall Riot which people erroneously dub the "start" of the gay rights movement); organize what is now the LGBT Roundtable of the American Library Association to make sure future generations would have accurate information about gay people as she could not find it in her own libraries as a college student; play a pivotal role in getting the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973; and serve on the founding boards of NGLTF and the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund, a charity which supports LGBT organizing in her native region. And that's just a partial list.

It's hard to understand how much we owe to courageous pioneers of the LGBT movement like Barbara Gittings, because the world in which they lived was so different than that which we inhabit today. For example, a lesbian friend of mine I had breakfast with yesterday wanted to know more about Barbara and why I got choked up when talking about her. "For one thing," I replied, "she had the courage to go on TV in 1970, use her real name, and not wear a bag over her head." My friend laughed and said, "Bag over her head???" I then had to explain that, before Barbara, if a gay person dared to go on television, they usually wore a mask or a bag over their head as exposure as being gay as deemed to basically be career and social suicide. My friend -- an out senior executive at a major television network -- looked at me in disbelief.

That's how different the world was before Barbara. I got a startling reminder of that today when a slide was shown of Barbara speaking at the American Psychiatric Association convention in 1972, seated next to Dr. Jack Fryer, as gay psychiatrist she persuaded to speak as well. Dr. Fryer was so terrified about the consequences for his career that he wore a wig and a mask and used a voice-altering microphone. Today, the APA has an award named for Dr. Fryer that is given annually to someone who has done outstanding work in promoting understanding of LGBT issues in psychiatry. Fittingly, the first winner was Barbara Gittings, who accepted it in her last public appearance in December 2006.

Barbara is survived by her partner of 47 years, Kay Lahusen. Opponents of marriage equality for same sex couples should be shamed into silence and repentance at the example set by Kay and Barbara, who found and sustained a love for nearly five decades (until cancer intervened) that -- when they met in 1960 -- truly dared not speak its name. Today's LGBT people have a degree of freedom which, however tenuous and incomplete it might still be, would have been unimaginable for Barbara's generation. But Barbara did imagine it and made it happen. We all owe this remarkable woman an enormous debt for the freedoms she won for us and can only repay her by making sure the next generation has all the freedoms -- including that to marry -- that Barbara so richly deserved but did not live to have. That would be an apt memorial to her.