Barbara Gittings is one of the names that will be remembered in history. She was fearless and smart and believed that education and not misinformation was the key to a healthy society. Aware that the road was hard but it did not derail her from her purpose.
“Equality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts.”Barbara Gittings
Origins Of the Quote
These are powerful words are by Barbara Gittings. Gittings laid the groundwork for the movement supporting the marginalized. An American, she fought on behalf of the LGBTQ population. She had organized the New York chapter of the Daughters of Biliti from 1958-63. Daughters was the first Lesbian and civil and political rights organization formed in San Francisco, CA in 1955. Gittings wrote and edited the Ladder from 1963-66 despite the taboo subject. It was the voice for the movement and important as a tool for communication.
In her most well-known fight, she took on a Goliath i.e the United States government. The idea was to stop the barring of LGBTQ applicants from employment. It was a fair right to work and earn a living. Gittings created awareness and promoted positive literature about homosexuality in libraries. Equality and acceptance were as important as laws.
Barbara truly laid the foundation for dialogue for unrepresented people. That they need to know and understand that they are worthy and that they are not alone. And they were different – not through discrimination, but individualistic.
The Person Behind the Words
Barbara was born in Austria. Her father was a diplomat for the United States. Her family was very religious, immersed in Catholicism. Leaving Austria during World War II, the 6family settled in Delaware.
In the US – Barbara came face to face with discrimination for the first time. Attending high school she immediately felt attracted to girls. Being denied membership at the National Honor Society on the grounds of ‘Homosexual’ tendencies – was humiliating. In a painful and pointed way. Barbara was an excellent student. Excellence in academics would not cover for being ‘abnormal’.
It was in Northwestern University Gittings, she would visit a psychiatrist to understand what was bothering her. The mental health worker offered to treat her. Therapy was expensive and it was not a viable option for her father. So Barbara did what she knew – she researched on her own.
Gittings discovered deep-seated misinformation that was miseducating minds. It was a manipulation that was subtle, potent and centuries old. Barbara had a lonely journey from the age of 17 – to when she created the DOB in the mid-fifties. She had courageously signed up for a life that she knew held many dark turns. Witnessing violence, hatred, discrimination, humiliation – she must’ve worked hard to preserve her sense of self. Not being understood is hard, especially by family. She created a community and worked for the betterment of all those who came after her.
When Odds are Against You
It was a dangerous time to be alive and doing what she did was unthinkable. The East Coast Homophile Organizations, had Dr. Albert Ellis say “the exclusive homosexual” was a psychopath. Articles and essays in The Ladder sometimes addressed these viewpoints, since it was difficult to get psychiatrists and doctors to address homosexuality in any form. She was a part of countless protests and organisations for her work. It was her meeting with Frank Kameny that gave her some hope. The Cover of Time Magazine featured her in 1964.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual removed Homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. Gittings was photographed with the Philadelphia newspaper headlines, that read “Twenty Million Homosexuals Gain Instant Cure”. It was her way of celebrating. Things were changing all around gradually.
Some Final Thoughts
Gittings made incredible progress. From taking wide steps in the key areas that would harness more inclusivity to more efforts towards less ostracization for the community. She was instrumental in getting the American Psychiatric Association to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental illness. The work with libraries to carry gay literature was pivotal in educating the masses, eradicating ignorance. Hatred is often born of ignorance. Wielding a pen or a protest sign, a militant advocate, Barbara had a simple message. While society said being gay was abnormal, she disagreed! It was not a disease that had to be cut away or cured.
It was difficult and dangerous to be out. Gittings edited the Ladder, a periodical published by the nation’s first known lesbian-rights organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, creating a sense of national identity and providing a platform for resistance. In the August 1964 issue,she blasted the medical report describing homosexuality as a disease. It claimed to treat lesbians like her more as “curious specimens” than a human.
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