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Barbara Gittings

A pioneer of the lesbian and gay rights movement since 1958, Barbara Gittings (1932-2007) is recognized for her daring, innovative strategies and inspired activism. Her groundbreaking work as an advocate for the inclusion of gay and lesbian works in public libraries is her greatest legacy.

Aware that she was "different," Gittings left her home in Wilmington, Delaware, at the age of seventeen. Socially isolated as so many young gay people are, Gittings discovered clues to her identity through library books. She ventured west to San Francisco in 1956 and became involved with the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first known lesbian organization in the United States, which had been founded the previous year. In 1958, DOB encouraged Gittings to establish an East Coast chapter in Philadelphia. She did so and marched in the first gay rights demonstrations in the early 1960s, on the Fourth of July in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and later at the Pentagon in Washington.

Cover of
Barbara Gittings
Gays in Library Land:
The Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the American Library Association: The First Sixteen Years
,
Philadelphia, PA: B. Gittings, 1990
Officially, the DOB had opposed picketing. "It was risky, and we were scared. Picketing was not a popular tactic at the time, and our cause seemed outlandish even to most gay people." From 1963 to 1966, Gittings served as editor of the organization’s newsletter, the Ladder, and under her leadership it became the first movement publication to champion social protest. Gittings subtitled her publication "A Lesbian Review," and introduced photographs of gay women on the covers—bold innovations in the fight against the pervasive invisibility of gays.

In the 1970s, Gittings was in the forefront of the challenge to the American Psychiatric Association’s now discredited view of homosexuality. Though not a librarian, her energy and vision became focused on libraries. From 1971 to 1986 she headed the Gay Task Force of the American Library Association (ALA), the first gay task force in any professional organization. Gittings edited "A Gay Bibliography" and gay reading lists for the task force, and recounted its history in the pamphlet "Gays in Library Land." She "starred" in the first gay kissing booth, created for the 1971 ALA conference in Dallas in order to draw attention to gay literature—and gay librarians. A media uproar ensued at the conference.

From 1998 to 2002, Gittings served on the Hormel Endowment Committee for the Hormel Center. In 2001, following the example of the Hormel Center collection, the Free Library of Philadelphia established a Gay and Lesbian collection of circulating materials at its Independence branch, and named it for Barbara Gittings—an apt tribute. And in 2003, Gittings was recognized for her contributions to libraries and librarianship with the prestigious ALA Honorary Membership, its highest honor.