Barbara Gittings was an active national activist and a critical archivist and editor. Her work was instrumental in wrenching the narrative of LGBTQIA lives out of the regime of psychiatry and into the hands of LGBTQIA folks themselves.
She was born in Austria, moved to Montreal, Canada as a child and then to Wilmington, Delaware. She moved to Philadelphia at age 18.
In the pre-Stonewall years of LGBTQIA activism, Gittings dogged work to uncover, collect and publicize information and stories about LGBTQIA people and to refute the pathology loudly advanced by the discipline of Psychiatry was deeply impactful to the important efforts that intertwined and followed. While on a trip in California in 1956, Gittings met Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, co-founders of the important lesbian collective, Daughters of Billitis, who in 1958 asked her to start a chapter in New York City.
Gittings served as chapter president for three years and became the editor of the group’s national magazine, The Ladder, 1963-66. During this time, she worked with other east coast activists to organize a series of picket lines in 1965 at the White House, the United Nations and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. These picket line protests were part of a growing set of protests and sit-ins in which LGBTQIA people risked their employment status, their relationships with family, friends and neighbors, and their safety to publicly criticize and resist the police, the government and the society as a whole for the violent regulation and repression of LGBTQIA lives. Among other important event in this history is the 1965 sit-in at Dewey’s Café in Philadelphia in which a group of gay, lesbian and/or trans youth protested the café’s refusal to serve a handful of patrons because of their gender non-conforming dress.
It is important to note that this range of protests demonstrate an active site of conflict within early LGBTQIA activism. For the picket line demonstrations, including the Annual Reminder Day protests which happened every year from 1965 until the Stonewall riots in 1969 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, activists were required to dress in clothes that conformed to normative gender codes and those who didn’t were asked to leave. The Dewey’s sit-in was one large event among countless smaller daily and weekly refusals enacted by individuals and small groups living, working and socializing on the streets of Philadelphia and other U.S. cities and towns who very simply but courageously insisted to express themselves and their gender according to their own sense of who they were.
In addition to her work with DOB, the Ladder and the picket-line protests in D.C. and Philadelphia, Gittings was a leading figure in several important efforts in the late 60s, early 70s to dismantle the dominant societal notion that homosexuality was an illness. At the 1972 Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatry Association, Gittings, Frank Kameny and an anonymous gay psychiatrist, co-presented on a panel, called “Psychiatry: Friend of Foe to Homosexuals: A Dialogue”. The event impacted the APA and in the 1973 homosexuality was removed from the industry’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or DSM, as a mental disorder.
Importantly, Gittings regularly appeared in newspaper stories, on television news stories and in public lectures to discuss lesbianism, homosexuality and the movement for equal rights. Her appearances used the “power of the press” to combat popular stereotypes about lesbians and spread a personal perspective on the movement. Throughout her life, Gittings worked to combat job discrimination against LGBTQIA people and to get material about LGBTQIA lives into libraries in the city and the country.