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Tearing away the shroud of invisibility

Caroline Fritz, Special to the Quad

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Barbara Gittings was a highly influential lesbian activist of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and 70s. Gittings organized the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, a social group for lesbians, edited the national DOB magazine The Ladder from 1963 to 1966, participated in the first gay picket line at the White House in 1965, spent 16 years working with the American Library Association (ALA) to get positive gay and lesbian themed materials into libraries and eliminate censorship. She was a major player in the movement to de-categorize homosexuality as a mental illness.

Until 1973, homosexuality was in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), as a mental disorder. Gittings and Frank Kameny organized a discussion with the American Psychiatric Association called, “Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to Homosexuals: A Dialogue.” They fought to have a gay psychiatrist on the panel who agreed to come but in heavy disguise for fear of professional ostracism. At the hearing, Gittings read aloud powerful letters from gay psychiatrists who had turned her down out of the same fear. She also co-counseled with Kameny at a hearing to disprove an expert witness’ claim that homosexuals could convert to heterosexuality.

Gittings described her main mission in life as tearing away the “shroud of invisibility” surrounding homosexuality. “I keep trying to convince people in the movement that the charge of sickness is perhaps our greatest problem,” she said in a 1967 letter. “We can’t really progress in other directions until the unsubstantiated assumption of sickness is demolished!”

One of the most significant ways Gittings provoked change for the LGBT community was finding positive LGBT reading material that portrayed nonheterosexuals in a healthy, wholesome light. She joined the gay caucus of the ALA and worked to achieve LGBT visibility in literature. At one ALA convention, she organized a gay kissing booth that encouraged people to “Hug a Homosexual.” When no one stepped forward, she and another lesbian embraced in front of television cameras, which, in the 70s, caused an absolute uproar. In 2003, Gittings was awarded a lifetime membership in the ALA for her work and the Barbara Gittings award is given to the best gay or lesbian novel each year.

On February 18, 2007, Gittings died in Kennett Square, Pa. after a long battle with breast cancer. Gittings’ legacy continues today in ways that may not be immediately apparent. The LGBT community has her to thank in part for even being able to talk about LGBT issues in the public sphere. In a 1974 interview, Gettings proclaims:

“Having gone through many years of unhappiness, uncertainty, and negative feelings about myself, I want to see to it that younger gay people don’t have to go through the same thing. Those years of worrying and wondering were, in a way, productive for me. I’m assertive and I kept grappling with it until I finally evolved a positive view of my gayness. But it was a long, hard journey, which might have broken someone else. People shouldn’t have to go through that.”

Caroline Fritz is a third-year English major with a minor in linguistics. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The Student News Service of West Chester University
Tearing away the shroud of invisibility