Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 23 June, 1997

BARBARA GITTINGS:
CO-GRAND MARSHAL IN NEW YORK CITY
June 29 "Heritage of Pride Parade" Honors a Legendary Pioneer


"It really came down to her being somebody who has done so much for the community, especially during a time when there were very few people out there in the public as gays and lesbians."


Heritage of Pride Media Director,
New York City

By Jack Nichols

 

Barbara Gittings, in my mind, has ever been the Grand Mother of Lesbian and Gay Liberation. But still, I'm unable to zip memory forward without seeing Kay Tobin Lahusen too, standing at her side. To speak of Barbara is to speak of Kay, always her greatest love; half-maker of a legendary whole, a same-sex couple whose lives of dedication remain enduring testaments to understanding and affection, walking hand in hand, accomplishing.

On most occasions, Kay has labored away from the limelight. But Kay's always been as much a part of the public Barbara as Barbara herself, gently pushing her other half forward to the podium. Yes, Kay has been Barbara's never failing companion, a keen, intuitive, supportive intellect, a talented journalist and pioneering lesbian photographer, and, literally, in my mind, in the fullest sense, Barbara Gittings' magnificent other half.

Kay, author of The Gay Crusaders, seminal portraits of pioneers like Jim Owles, Marty Robinson and Dick Michaels, (see reprints from this primary text in the archives, GayToday: June 1997 "People" features) recently surprised me. I'd wondered if I could run her book's portrait of Barbara, but she asked, "Why don't you write that?" I agreed to the assignment.

Kay's suggestion presented, I saw, both honor and pleasure. The honor? Celebrating a committed pioneer whose life early evolved into an interminable and immeasurable helping of others. Barbara was able to administer such help because of her amazing intelligence, her originating of unrivaled strategies showing what needed to be done, and--always--because of her elegant, self-confident presentations of herself and her ideas. Another pioneer, Lige Clarke, once said that "honoring Barbara and Kay, their love and their accomplishments, should come as easily to the fore among future generations as the honoring of Stein & Toklas has come to generations in the past."

The pleasurable aspect of Kay's suggestion , I saw, would be an opportunity to remember the very Barbara I've always so admired, a woman and her dear Kay who were near--over a decade-- during many of my own life's fondest and most exciting adventures. It remains a natural fact to me that Barbara Gittings, using her presence alone, lent her peers in the then-fledgling movement a priceless assurance with her proud bearing, a dignity that would help spell undoubted victory to the cause of our liberation. Barbara Gittings gives such assurances still to those whose lives she touches.

 

In memory--through writing these words-- I'm able to "return once more to yesteryear" to enjoy mental pictures of wonderful Barbara and Kay, history-making women, as we worked determinedly within ground-zero revolutionary circles. All of us--Kay and Barbara--and our immediate friends "a little club"--rode aloft like free-wheeling surfers in those heady days. Barbara, among all women, I thought, caught the sunlit waves of the future, smiling certainties at her comrades-in-arms and looking far to the horizons, to waves carrying other movement stalwarts, each landing safely, again and again on targeted shores.

Barbara Gittings' life is a story that blooms like an unforgettable rose, reveling in the radiant triumph of undeniable growth. It is about the successful vanquishing of wrongs, about the routing of ignorant forces and about the joy she now exudes while her long labors are well-compensated by gay and lesbian victories hardly foreseeable forty years ago. Then, in 1958, as an attractive 26 year old young woman, she first committed herself to speaking publicly about a love that dared not speak its name.

Barbara Brooks Gittings was born (Vienna, Austria) into a Social Register family in 1932, the daughter of an American diplomat of the Roman Catholic faith. "My life was so steeped in Catholicism" she says in The Gay Crusaders, "I thought I wanted to become a nun."

Perhaps it was because of the Sound of Music starring sometimes-nun Julie Andrews and showcased in 1965, two years after I first met Barbara and Kay, that, in my own movie-littered mind, I secretly thought of Maria von Trapp as played by Ms. Andrews as bearing a resemblance to Barbara Gittings. Both the movie star and the lesbian pioneer had early mastered, it seemed, the elegant mannerisms of the aristocracy. Also, they both seemed thrilled to be singing--solo and choir-- a classic array of joyous melodies. Finally they both were strong, wholesome, straightforward presences. Later, I was to learn that Barbara, who found various studies easy, had studied dramatics in high school. The person who knows how to act, unlike many people, has an inner knowledge that the poet Robert Burns suggests is relevant to living: "Oh would some Power--the gift to give us--to see ourselves as others see us?--It would from many an error free us--and foolish notion." This verse describes the kind of person aware of where it is that she stands. She knows what's ahead and behind. Barbara was not, on gay liberation stages, likely to back into an unnoticed electric fan. She has been as sure-footed as can be, a gracious, fair, yet devastatingly elegant yet intimidating presence if she had to answer to foes of lesbian and gay equality. Or, if she laughed, it was a hearty laugh, lighting up her entire face. Yes, Barbara Gittings, the brain, was also the inheritor of a Social Registry manner that seemed to speak not only of equality for gays but of equality, as a living womanly intelligence, with men.

On their first meetings with me and other members of the militant Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C.--in 1963, Barbara and Kay brought along a friend, Rosyln Regelson, among the first lesbian strategists they knew who'd critiqued the psychiatric profession and, more particularly, the-then-mostly-conservative gay movement's willingness to host psychiatrists as speakers. These crank professionals, she said, ought to have been shouted down as they told gay audiences they were suffering a pathological condition. Regelson later became the nation's first instructor in gay and lesbian studies, at New York University and later at Yale.

The movement, in those days, moaned as it limped through an ungainly birth process that found some gay and lesbian leaders grasping for evidences of the respectability of their organizations, allowing--in public meetings-- professional medicine men to spread illusions about medical objectivity in research about homosexuality.

 

Barbara Gittings, Kay Tobin Lahusen, Frank Kameny, Dr. George Weinberg and shortly thereafter, Lige Clarke, Lilli Vincenz, Perrin Shaffer, Dick Leitsch, Madeline Cervantes, Clark Polak, Paul Kuntzler, Richard Inman, Otto Ulrich, Gail Gonzalez, Craig Rodwell, Randy Wicker, Foster Gunnison, myself as well as just a few others on the East Coast publicly and aggressively took the position as early as 1965 that homosexuality is not an illness, but an orientation, propensity, or preference, fully on par with heterosexuality. It was on this issue, psychiatric nonsense, that Barbara and I first experienced an alliance. Also, since I was a militant in Washington's Mattachine, both she and Kay began to work--visiting from Philadelphia--with Kameny, Vincenz, Clarke, and other Washingtonians who shared their then-unique views about strategy. Our little groups organized the first picketing of Philadelphia's Independence Hall.

Other more conservative movement workers felt agitated by this anti-sickness stand of ours, preferring to wait, as organizations, until more professional research would take place. Barbara Gittings, armed with strategies she discussed with Dr. Franklin Kameny and only a few others in Washington and New York, became one of the nation's foremost experts on the gay-business frauds perpetuated by psychiatric witchdoctors. Consulting as I did with Kameny, she prepared herself for many of the magnificent battles she'd have with these shrinks and, more quickly than they'd have thought possible, the "physicians" stature, on the sickness question, always shrank. They had no proof gays and lesbians were sick, and Barbara Gittings was among the first to point this out. She knew the literature. She knew they were liars. But she told them so politely.

Barbara was a militant in many other respects as well. The conservative Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian movement organization, chose her in 1963, without realizing the ramifications of her strategies of militancy, to edit The Ladder, the first lesbian movement magazine. Barbara didn't try to dishonestly curry favor with those strategists she believed mistaken. Though she got flack from her more conservative sisters, she and Kay put together monthly issues of a publication that blithely pioneered militant strategies, no matter what status-quo-huggers thought. The Ladder, under Barbara and Kay blazed new journalistic trails, becoming the first movement publication to champion picketing as a form of movement activity. A 1965 movement picket at the Civil Service Commission shows Lilli Vincenz on The Ladder's October cover, while on inside pages Barbara sided with Kameny, allowing him--a man-- to engage in written debates with female members about ballyhooed psychological research projects and psychiatric theories of homosexual "pathology". Barbara, as a lesbian, practiced, by using men as writers, the equality of the sexes.

Interestingly, therefore, during Barbara's editorship of this cutting-edge women's magazine, gay men's names were affixed more than once to articles they'd been asked to write. This was innovative. I was assigned the task, with another male, of covering of a major movement meeting, which had included both men and women. Randy Wicker, the mid-60's media-whiz kid of gay lib, was used as a back-cover house ad, dutifully reading his copy of The Ladder. Barbara and Kay saw the future of gay liberation linked to a kind of solidarity with gay men as well, and in the long-run they will have had history on their side.

This egalitarian view of theirs was as true in their intellectual and social pursuits as in their movement work.

I favored it myself making for yet another early reason I felt linked to Barbara. The same two books I'd weaned myself upon during my teens--The Well of Loneliness and The Homosexual in America--were the first two books that found Barbara suddenly aware of promising waves that were, in those early days, still on far horizons. But Barbara, always the gay male's comrade-in-arms, saw those faraway waves, caught them, and on June 29 will ride through Manhattan on one, sitting next to Representative Barney Frank (D.-Mass.) the man who will be the other Co-Grand Marshall at the Big Apple's June 29 Heritage of Pride Parade.

 

Another journalistic innovation--carried out by Barbara and Kay and one that is of spectacular importance--was their avant gaard use of cover photography. Prior to Barbara's assumption of responsibility for the magazine, the publication's editors had used mostly cats as cover-come-ons. Barbara wanted instead the real faces of real lesbians. Beginning this daring project, I recall, they had trouble finding new faces, those willing to submit to Kay's illuminating camera-lens. But by the time Barbara and Kay had resigned and later lived in New York, women were cueing up for covers-honors. By going this way, reasoned Barbara, the pioneering magazine would show isolated readers--for the first time--that there were attractive, every-day women willing to self-identify as lesbians.

A second extraordinary innovation was the placement for the first time of the word "lesbian" on The Ladder's cover. Under the somewhat obscure title, Barbara affixed the words, "A Lesbian Review." Previously the magazine's editors had avoided outside mention of the publication's contents. Now, even post office clerks would be able to tell who was and who wasn't, some argued. Were recipient-subscribers ready? Barbara didn't ask. The magazine's new editor wanted to say "lesbian" on its cover whether recipients liked it or not. They liked it.

The Daughters of Bilitis, during Barbara's reign as editor, was officially opposed to picketing. The organization's leadership went bananas while Barbara happily championed the practice. In every early movement picketline between New York, Philadelphia and Washington, Barbara and Kay were present. "Sometimes we were scared," says Barbara today, "but we knew what we had to do and we did it. Our cause seemed outlandish even to most gay people." Sometimes the picketing photographs Kay took went into The Ladder--as was the case with the first Mattachine protest (1965) at The Pentagon; at other times they simply found their way into Kay's treasurehouse of early movement photography.

I suppose another thing that makes me, as a gay provocateur, feel close to Barbara is her motivating reason for being an activist. It is that she didn't want teens to suffer any of the unhappiness and confusion she herself had experienced as a youth. Her greatest accomplishments as a lesbian and gay pioneer, she believes, lie in the groundbreaking work she's done over the decades to open public libraries to gay and lesbian works. For fifteen years she remained head of the Gay Task Force of the American Library Association, editing its Gay Bibliography and other gay and lesbian reading lists. She "starred" in 1971, in the first-ever gay kissing booth, called "Hug a Homosexual," run by gay the librarians' group at the national convention of librarians.

In GAY, America's first gay weekly newspaper, which Lige Clarke edited with me and for which Kay Tobin Lahusen was both News Editor and a photographer in residence, one may see photographs of Barbara Gittings audaciously involved in the thick of militant movement activism. Her early 1970's homosexual exhibits at the American Psychiatric Association, for example, were staged prior to that organization's historic vote declassifying homosexuality as an illness. They were titled, "Homophobia: Time for a Cure" and "Gay Love is Good Medicine."

Kay, almost immediately after the Stonewall uprising helped--as a founding member--to shape the Gay Activists Alliance's strategies, bringing from a previous decade of her early movement militancy, an unparalleled awareness of how best to proceed. Undeniably it can therefore be said of Kay that she served as a valuable and much-needed transmitter, a selfless conduit who passed forward to her then-unsuspecting- GAA founder-comrades, a previous generation's most powerful activist strategies, buoying the next generation and thus cementing the best of mid-1960's East Coast militancy with, in 1970, effective post-Stonewall activism.

 

Lige Clarke and I were invited by Barbara and Kay to share, in June, 1969, a house on Fire Island. Roslyn Regelson and her lifelong love, author Eleanor Lester, were there too. We were there during the weekend of the first night's Stonewall riot in Greenwich Village. Lige and I returned to the city where we excitedly drank in details of the uprising, while taking note of its last sporadic spasms.

But Stonewall weekend wouldn't be the last time that we'd be sharing quarters-- Barbara, Kay, Lige and me--showing thereby natural feelings of solidarity between gay men and lesbians. The famed lesbian couple, knowing that Lige and I were long-distance travelers, kept a room aside for us in their Greenwich Village apartment, where, after our resignation from GAY, and while we were writing books, we could pass through the city and stay at will. We kept our New York duds in the bedroom closet and, always, found Barbara and Kay to be our gracious hosts when we popped into town.

As I think of Barbara Gittings tonight, I see I somehow have always felt she was a slightly older (6 years only) sister, one who has--for 22 years-- lived in a far away city but whose heartfelt honesty and forthrightness and my clear, unbent memory of it is somehow more essential about her to me than anything else I know. I know too that she's a no-nonsense big sister, one who doesn't have time to argue foolishly. No, I can be sure that Barbara Gittings will always put her finest talents into domains where it counts. Now, for example, she's a board member of The Delaware Valley Legacy Fund, which promotes philanthropy for gay and lesbian organizations, and she is on the advisory board of the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force.

I can almost envision Barbara, before I first knew her, after she'd begun finding as a teen that she was a lesbian, dressing as a butch and hitch-hiking to see New York's lesbian nightlife in the mid-1950's. That her eagerness to connect with organized lesbians in the late 50's led her on a journey to the Californian coast, is no surprise to me.

I can still see her arguing eloquently at movement meetings in the mid- 1960's, always focused on completing our activist agendas. I can see her rubbing her hands together on a cold Philadelphia night. I can see her linked arm-in-arm with comrades in the earliest Gay Pride Parades. I see Barbara and Kay, seated on pillows in the East Village pad I first shared with Lige. Kay has been studying yoga with Lige and feels refreshed. Barbara is glad for this, and is looking at Kay fondly.

I thumb through The Gay Crusaders and I read (p. 183) about a long 1967 ride I took with Barbara from Washington, D.C. to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. The book says: "Requests for gay speakers were beginning to trickle in from colleges to gay organizations. Jack and Barbara responded to such a request from Bucknell..." We were a smash duo on the university stage--gay male and lesbian woman. The students applauded warmly.

I think of golden days--in the 60's-- when what Barbara called "a little club" of movement people moved together in a remarkable unison, an almost mystic bond uniting a miniscule few and now it grows large, exploding miraculously in the great gay parades of the 1990's. That Barbara should be Co-Grand Marshal of the largest lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender parade in America's number one metropolis is, well, just as it should be.

Don't miss seeing and hearing Barbara Gittings speak after the Heritage of Pride Parade finishes. She'll be at the rally, and her topic will be "Pride Starts Here." Go listen. Just see her. She's the right kind of a living legend. June 29. Manhattan. Happy Gay Pride Day, Barbara and Kay. Love, Jack

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