Women's History Month, The Gay Pioneers

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Barbara Gittings: Gay Pioneer

b. July 31, 1932

d. February 18, 2007

"As a teenager, I had to struggle alone to learn about myself and what it meant to be gay. Now for years I've had the satisfaction of working with other gay people all across the country to get the bigots off our backs, to oil the closet door hinges, to change prejudiced hearts and minds, and to show that gay love is good for us and for the rest of the world too. It's hard work---but it's vital, and it's gratifying, and it's often fun!"

Barbara Gittings is a Gay Pioneer who participated in the first organized annual gay civil rights demonstrations, helped convince the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, and helped persuade libraries to include gay content.

In the 1950's gay activism was in its infancy. Describing those years, Gittings says, "There were scarcely 200 of us in the whole United States. It was like a club---we all knew each other." Barbara Gittings began her career in activism in 1958 when she founded the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization. She edited DOB's national magazine The Ladder from 1963 to 1966.

In 1965, Gittings marched in the first gay picket lines at the White House and other Federal sites in Washington, DC to protest discrimination by the Federal government. She joined other activists in the first annual demonstrations for gay and lesbian civil rights held each July 4 from 1965 to 1969 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. These yearly protests laid the groundwork for the Stonewall rebellion in 1969 and the first New York gay pride parade in 1970.

In the 1970's, Gittings campaigned with Frank Kameny and others to have homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders. She recruited "Dr. H. Anonymous," a gay psychiatrist who appeared, masked, on a panel at the 1972 APA conference to tell his colleagues why he couldn't be open in his own profession. In 1973, when the de-listing was announced, a Philadelphia newspaper headline announced: "Homosexuals Gain 'Instant Cure'."

Gittings also crusaded to make gay literature available in libraries. Though not a librarian, Gittings found a home in the Gay Task Force of the American Library Association, the first gay caucus in a professional organization. She edited its Gay Bibliography and wrote a history of the group, "Gays in Library Land." Her campaign to promote gay materials and eliminate discrimination in libraries was recognized in 2003 by an honorary lifetime membership conferred by the American Library Association.

Del Martin 

b. May 5, 1921

d. August 27, 2008

Phyllis Lyon 

b. November 10, 1924

Founders of the first lesbian organization and the first same-sex couple married in California

"Two extraordinary people ... that have spent the greater part of a half century ... fighting for their right to live the way so many of us, frankly, take for granted." – San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded the first lesbian organization in the United States and have fought for more than 50 years for the rights of lesbians and gays. On June 16, 2008, Martin and Lyon became the first gay couple to be legally married in California.

Martin and Lyon both earned degrees in journalism. While working as journalists in Seattle, the two became romantically involved. The couple relocated to San Francisco and moved in together on Valentine’s Day 1953.

In 1955, finding it hard to develop a social network in San Francisco, Martin, Lyon and a small group of women founded the first lesbian organization, called the Daughters of Bilitis. The name was inspired by Pierre Louys’s “Songs of Bilitis,” a collection of poems celebrating lesbian sexuality.

Though it was intended to be a secret society, Martin and Lyon wanted to make the Daughters of Bilitis more visible. The group began publishing a monthly magazine, called The Ladder, which was the first-ever lesbian publication. As editors of the magazine, they capitalized the word “lesbian” every time it appeared.

In 1964, while fighting to change California sex laws criminalizing homosexuals, the couple joined religious and gay community leaders to form the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH). This organization was at the forefront of the movement to gain religious support on gay rights issues. Both women served on the founding CRH board of directors.

In 2004, when gay marriage was offered in San Francisco, Martin and Lyon were the first to wed. A California appellate court ruling subsequently invalidated their marriage. Then in May 2008, a California Supreme Court decision provided same-sex couples the right to marry. On June 16, 2008, they were the first same-sex couple married in California. The wedding was officiated by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Martin and Lyon have published two books together, “Lesbian/Woman” (1972) and “Lesbian Love and Liberation” (1973). On their 50th anniversary, the documentary “No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon” premiered. In 2005, the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association inducted Martin and Lyon into the LGBT Journalists Hall of Fame for their pioneering work on The Ladder. In 2007, they received the 2007 Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Pioneer Award.

Lilli Vincenz: Gay Pioneer 

b. September 26, 1937

“We were laying the groundwork for what we hoped would be later activism that would give homosexuals equal rights.”

Lilli Vincenz is a pioneering gay rights activist. In 1965, she was the only lesbian to participate in the first White House picket. From 1965 to 1969, Vincenz demonstrated each Fourth of July in front of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. These protests, called Annual Reminders, launched the gay and lesbian civil rights movement.

Vincenz was born in Hamburg, Germany, and grew up during World War II. Her father died when she was 2 years old. In 1949, after her mother married an American, the family moved to the United States.

In 1959, Vincenz earned bachelor’s degrees in French and German from Douglas College. The following year, she received a master’s degree in English from Columbia University.

After college, Vincenz enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps and worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. After serving nine months, she was outed by her roommate and was discharged for being gay.

In 1963, Vincenz joined the Mattachine Society of Washington (MSW). She was in the MSW delegation that held the first meeting with the Civil Service Commission to discuss discriminatory policies toward gays and lesbians.

In 1971, Vincenz helped launch the Frank Kameny for Congress campaign. This marked the first time an openly gay person ran for public office in the United States.

Vincenz filmed two important gay rights demonstrations: the 1968 Annual Reminder in Philadelphia and the first anniversary of Stonewall, known as the first New York Pride Parade.

From 1971 to 1979, Vincenz hosted a monthly Gay Women’s Open House in Washington to provide a safe setting for socializing and discussing common concerns.

In 1990, Vincenz earned a Ph.D. in human development from the University of Maryland. Vincenz has written for numerous publications and has appeared on television and in film.

She resides in Arlington, Virginia, with her partner, Nancy Ruth Davis.LGBTHistoryMonth.com


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