As the LGBT community basks in the recent victory for marriage equality, we should not forget the pioneers of the movement says Tracy Baim, author of a new biography of Barbara Gittings, 1932-2007.
“Barbara Gittings: Gay Pioneer” is the first full-length biography of the woman called the mother of the gay rights movement.
“There were only a couple hundred activists in that pre-Stonewall era, actually working for a change,” explained Baim, longtime editor of the “Windy City Times” in Chicago, a screenwriter and producer and author of several other books.
Gittings realized she was different while a student at Northwestern University. She dropped out and sought out others who identified and lived openly as homosexuals. In 1956, she traveled to San Francisco and became a member of the Daughters of Bilitis. Two years later, she founded the New York chapter.
While most gays and lesbians still lived in the closet, Gittings took a more public role, marching in the 1965 protest outside the White House with another founder of the gay rights movement, Frank Kameny, arguing that homosexuality was not a disqualification for government employment. On July 4, 1965, she and Kameny began annual pickets at Independence Hall that would continue until the Stonewall riots.
“Her real motivation was that other people shouldn’t feel isolated and alone. She had a grand vision of a movement,” Baim discovered in her research. “She wasn’t the first, but she and Frank were the longest full time activists working for gay rights.”
In the early ‘70s as a member of the American Library Association, she pushed for greater visibility for gays and lesbians within the profession and access to literature about homosexuality. She and Kameny also lobbied the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders.
In the years after Stonewall, Gittings and other leaders had to contend with in-fighting within the community and competing political agendas. Through it all, Gittings remained focused on her goal to win greater acceptance and equality for her gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Her efforts laid the groundwork for many of the LGBT organizations that exist today, including the Human Rights Campaign and National Lesbian and Gay Task Force.
Baim began the project last October with the blessing of Gittings’ longtime partner, Kay Lahusen, and a self-imposed deadline to publish by the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Philadelphia march. Baim completed the book in February, months ahead of schedule.
“It’s so important to realize how important history is. Our gains are so closely tied to the activists of the ‘50s and ‘60s, but we must understand how tenuous it is. Society can change on a dime. The groundwork they laid is solid, but it can also shift. We know this from other countries in the world. We need to honor people like Barbara and learn from her,” Baim said.
Tracy Baim, author of “Barbara Gittings: Gay Pioneer,” will discuss her book on Thursday, Aug. 13 at 7 p.m. at the Stonewall National Museum – Wilton Manors Gallery, 2157 Wilton Drive, as part of the museum’s Stonewall Author Series. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, go to Stonewall-Museum.org.