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People Who Died

The Normal Heart (and Mind)

Barbara Gittings

Okan Arabacioglu

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 12/26/2007

Growing up in Wilmington, Del., Barbara Gittings knew she was different early on. She found herself having crushes on female students at school; her father found out she was reading a novel about lesbians and wrote his daughter a letter asking her to burn the book. In 1949 she enrolled in Northwestern University as a theater major but flunked out after a year. Rather than studying theater, she had spent all her time researching what exactly it meant to be a lesbian.

"There was nobody I could talk to, so I went to the library for information," Gittings said in a 1999 American Libraries magazine interview. "That was what I was raised to do, but it wasn't very much help. I had to find bits and pieces under headings like `sexual perversion' and `sexual aberration' in books on abnormal psychology. I kept thinking, `It's me they're writing about, but it doesn't feel like me at all.'"

In 1956, she traveled to California and met the founder of the Daughters of Bilitis, which would become the first national lesbian organization in the United States. Gittings had found her people and was asked to start a New York chapter two years later. She met her partner of 46 years, photographer and writer Kay Lahusen, at a Daughters of Bilitis picnic. She even became the editor of the national Daughters magazine, The Ladder, in 1963. Over the three years she ran the magazine, she changed the cover art from drawings of women to photographs of actual lesbians.

Gittings took part, in 1965, in what is believed to be the first protest at the White House for gay rights and continued to march in front of Philadelphia's Independence Hall every Fourth of July through out the '60s. "It was called annual Reminder Day," Gittings told Philadelphia City Paper in a 1999 interview. "The purpose was to remind the public that the guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that are in the documents we celebrate on July 4 are not extended to gay people." In 2005, a plaque was erected across the street from Independence Hall to commemorate the protests. In 1971, she took another step toward visibility by organizing a kissing booth at an American Library Association conference. People gawked as news media watched, but no one lined up for the free same-sex kisses and hugs being offered, so Gittings planted one on a fellow volunteer.

Perhaps Gittings' greatest accomplishment was her work to get homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders. In 1972, she was invited to sit on a panel on the topic at an APA symposium. "My partner Kay said, `This isn't right. Here you have two psychiatrists pitted against two gays, and what you really need is someone who is both,'" Gittings recalled while accepting an award from the APA in 2006. Finding someone willing to come forward proved difficult, but one gay psychiatrist finally agreed to speak, though he insisted on wearing a mask and wig and disguising his voice. He was called Dr. H. Anonymous and his testimony was seen by many as a turning point. The APA voted to take homosexuality of its list of mental illnesses a year later.

It was major victory for the gay-rights movement, but Gittings continued working. She won numerous awards; she and her partner donated books, writings, and paraphernalia from the gay-rights struggle to libraries, to ensure that future generations won't have to hunt for information about their history and identity as she did; and she continued speaking out even as she battled the breast cancer that ended her life Feb. 18 at age 74.

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