Just As I Thought

Barbara Gittings

Barbara Gittings, 75, one of the earliest activists to push the U.S. government to provide gay men and lesbians with equal rights, died Feb. 18 at an assisted living center in Kennett Square, Pa. She had breast cancer.

In 1965, Ms. Gittings and several gay men and lesbians were the first to hold demonstrations outside the White House for equal rights for homosexuals. She later played a key role in the American Psychiatric Association’s removal of homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973.

“Gay people didn’t have a face until Barbara started demonstrating in 1965,” said Mark Segal, publisher of Philadelphia Gay News. “Up until that point, no gay face had been seen in the newspaper, on television or in the movies.”

Her involvement in the gay rights movement started in the 1950s, when she helped form the New York City chapter of the early lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis.

Around the same time, Ms. Gittings became estranged from her family, which did not approve of her championing of gay rights, Segal said.

Ms. Gittings headed the American Library Association’s Gay Task Force to attract more attention to gay literature and urge libraries to provide more information on sexuality and gay issues.

William Kelley, a Chicago lawyer who first attended a national gay rights gathering with Ms. Gittings in the 1960s, said he remembered her saying that when she was young, she had to look in the encyclopedia to find out more about her sexuality. “It was her thought that libraries should be encouraged to offer more information to people about sexuality,” he said.

Ms. Gittings also was an editor of the lesbian journal the Ladder in the mid-1960s.

In Ms. Gittings’s lifetime, she saw a change in the perception of the gay rights movement. In the 1960s, she picketed in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on the Fourth of July. In 2005, she attended a ceremony at which the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission placed a historical marker recognizing the gay rights struggle across the street from Independence Hall.

Ms. Gittings was born in Vienna, Austria, where her father worked as a U.S. diplomat. She was raised in Delaware.

Survivors include her partner of 46 years, Kay Lahusen, and a sister.

[By Adam Satariano, Bloomberg News Service]

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