A gay activist long before people were even calling themselves gay, Barbara Gittings has been fighting the good fight for almost 50 years. She flunked out of her freshman year at Northwestern because she was spending most of her time in the library trying to find something that would help her understand what it meant to be a lesbian. Her mission ever since has been to tear away “the shroud of invisibility” that allowed homosexuality to be defined in terms of crime and disease. Editor of the pioneering lesbian journal The Ladder in the mid-’60s, she was one of the first-ever gay demonstrators, a member of the group that picketed in front of Independence Hall every July 4 from 1965-69. A founding member of two national gay rights organizations, she also served for 15 years as head of the American Library Association’s Gay Task Force, drawing attention to gay literature through such unconventional tactics as setting up a gay kissing booth at a Dallas ALA convention in 1971. After many years in Philadelphia, Gittings, 66, now lives in her native Wilmington, DE, with writer Kay Tobin Lahusen, her partner of 37 years. On April 27 during PrideFest, she will be honored at a reception benefiting the Free Library’s gay and lesbian literature collection.
You’ve been called the Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement.
I have nothing to do with that. I never thought of myself as doing that kind of a singular act.… It was always the result of a collaborative effort.
Talk about walking those first picket lines.
It was called annual Reminder Day. The purpose was to remind the public that the guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that are in the documents we celebrate on July 4 are not extended to gay people.… It was scary. Picketing was not a popular tactic at the time. And certainly our cause wasn’t popular.
And the gay kissing booth?
We needed to get an audience. So we decided… let’s show gay love live. We were offering free—mind you, free—same-sex kisses and hugs. Let me tell you, the aisles were mobbed, but no one came into the booth to get a free hug. So we hugged and kissed each other. It was shown twice on the evening news, once again in the morning. It put us on the map.
At The Ladder, you made some controversial innovations…
Moving from mediocre artwork covers by readers to full-fledged photos of real lesbians. My lover and I worked to change this because we wanted to show right on the cover of the magazine that lesbians were wholesome, healthy, normal human beings. Many lesbians themselves didn’t know this.
How did you and your lover meet?
In 1961 at a picnic in Rhode Island. We hit it off, we started courting. I flew to Boston [to see her] and got off the plane with a big bunch of flowers in my hand. I couldn’t resist. I didn’t care what the world thought. I dropped the flowers, grabbed her and kissed her. That was not being done in 1961.
This is really the secret of our battle for equality. We want to be treated just the same as others. You know that kissing booth wasn’t only a public stunt. It gave the message that gay people should not be held to double standards of privacy. We should be able to show our affections.
How have the two of you stayed together for so long?
There is no particular secret. We both are very much dedicated to activism. We find a great deal of satisfaction in that.… Yeah, we’re movement junkies.
I’ll be moderating a panel at the librarians’ conference in June, “Daring to Find Our History: Gay and Lesbian Archives Around the Country.” I recently lectured on an RSVP Caribbean cruise. It was called, “Gay and Smiling: Tips from My 40 Years as a Gay Activist.”
If someone were to write a chapter explaining Barbara Gittings’ role in gay history, what would the title be?
Well, ‘gay and smiling’ would be part of it.
Barbara Gittings will be part of the “National History Project” discussion at PrideFest, Tue., April 27, 7 p.m., at the Free Library, 1901 Vine St. For more information on this and other PrideFest America events, call 215-732-FEST or visit www.pridefest.org.