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Barbara Gittings: Mother of the LGBTQIA+ Rights Movement

Fall 1971--Panel of lesbians on The David Susskind Show. "Barbara Gittings #1" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1971.

Barbara Gittings, fondly known as the "mother of the LGBTQIA+ civil rights movement," holds a paramount place in American history. Her tireless work in the mid-twentieth century laid the groundwork for the progressive strides the LGBTQIA+ community enjoys today. Her story remains an embodiment of resilience, relentless advocacy, and unapologetic authenticity.

Born on July 31, 1932, in Vienna, Austria, Gittings was the daughter of a U.S. diplomat. The family soon moved back to the United States, where Gittings spent her early years navigating the complexities of her identity in a time of pronounced conservatism. She experienced an isolated upbringing in Wilmington, Delaware, a reality that left her grappling with her burgeoning sense of self in the shadows of societal norms.

In college, Gittings first delved into researching homosexuality. However, she could only find literature categorizing homosexuality as a mental illness, a stark contrast to her lived experience. Frustrated with the lack of understanding and visibility, she left college, moving to Philadelphia to find a community that accepted her as she was. This quest ultimately led her to New York City, where she discovered the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), one of the first lesbian civil rights organizations in the United States.

Gittings found solace and inspiration in the DOB, eager to contribute to the group's mission. In 1958, she established the New York chapter of DOB, one of her earliest steps in a lifetime journey advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights. Under her leadership, the chapter thrived, creating a safe space for lesbian women during a time of widespread persecution.

Beyond creating a sense of community, Gittings was determined to challenge the pervasive narrative around homosexuality. She became the editor of the DOB's magazine, "The Ladder," in 1963. Under her stewardship, "The Ladder" transformed from a cautious newsletter to a vibrant publication that openly discussed lesbian lives and experiences. It was a beacon of hope and unity, reaching women who felt isolated and alone in their identities.

Arguably one of Gittings' most impactful fights was her battle against the American Psychiatric Association's (APA) classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. Alongside Frank Kameny, Gittings tirelessly lobbied the APA to change its stance. Their activism culminated in a pivotal panel discussion at the 1972 APA conference, where Gittings arranged for a gay psychiatrist to speak, concealing his identity with a mask for his protection.

"Dr. H. Anonymous and Barbara Gittings on panel" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1972 - 1972.

This event proved transformative, casting a spotlight on the unjust treatment of LGBTQIA+ individuals. Two years later, the APA officially declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder, a momentous victory that fundamentally reshaped societal attitudes towards the LGBTQIA+ community.

Gittings also advocated for representation in literature and the media. As a member of the American Library Association's Gay Task Force, she fought for the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ books in libraries, fostering greater visibility and understanding. She famously wore a button saying "I'm your librarian," highlighting the presence of LGBTQIA+ individuals in all walks of life.

Even as her health declined, Gittings remained steadfast in her activism. In the early 2000s, she campaigned for marriage equality and continued to mentor younger generations of activists, passing on her legacy of resilience and advocacy.

Gittings passed away in 2007, but her contributions to the LGBTQIA+ rights movement continue to reverberate. She has posthumously received numerous awards and recognitions, including the APA award for “singular, outstanding advocacy” for the rights of LGBTQ+ people.

Barbara Gittings' legacy serves as a potent reminder of the power of advocacy, the necessity of visibility, and the courage of authenticity. Her life stands as a testament to the transformative shifts in societal attitudes she helped instigate, from a time when homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder to an era of increasing acceptance and equality.

Gittings' story embodies the very essence of Pride. It's a story of fighting to be seen, to be heard, and to be accepted. Through her relentless efforts, she brought to life a vision of a world where people are not defined or confined by their sexual orientation but celebrated for their individuality. In the face of adversity, her resilience and determination served as a guiding light that illuminated the path toward acceptance and equality.

As we reflect on the history of the LGBTQIA+ rights movement, Barbara Gittings’ indomitable spirit continues to inspire. Her life's work and unwavering dedication remind us that while significant strides have been made, the fight for full equality and acceptance continues. By keeping her legacy alive, we reaffirm our commitment to this ongoing battle, pledging to carry forward the torch she so bravely held high.