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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,051

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This is the grave of Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen.

Born in 1932 in Vienna, Austria, Gittings grew up very well off. Her father was a diplomat assign to the Austrian embassy. They were intensely Catholic and when old enough, she and her sisters were sent off to a Catholic girls boarding school in Montreal. In fact, Gittings seriously considered becoming a nun. The priesthood and nunnery is a common route for young Catholics uncomfortable with their sexuality, especially those who are queer. Still is today. That was true of Gittings as well. Like many diplomatic families, she and her parents moved back to the U.S. during World War II. They lived in Wilmington, Delaware and, again, the girls attended a fancy Catholic school. She was a good student. So she tried to get into the National Honor Society. But her teachers already suspected her of being a lesbian (what his means at the age of 11 or 12 in the 1940s I have no idea….) and so they told her they rejected her because of her “homosexual tendencies.” She didn’t know what that meant at the time. But she was certainly interested in girls romantically and perhaps this gave her a word to define herself.

In any case, Gittings would become one of the early warriors for gay rights in the United States, someone everyone should know but we really don’t. She went to Northwestern and majored in drama. She really hadn’t discovered her sexuality yet. But she was close friends with another female students and though it was a nonsexual relationship, there were rumors about them being lesbians. This made her think more concretely, huh, maybe I do want to have sex with women instead of men. Now, this was the late 40s, as Gittings started college young. In truth, the history of gay America is more of a series of waves than ALL OPPRESSION UNTIL 1967 AND THEN EVERYONE FUCKED IN THE STREETS! as the popular history of sex seems to frame it. For example, as the historian George Chauncey has explored, drag balls were a huge draw in 1920s New York. But there’s no question that the late 40s and 50s were a pretty grim time in the history of homosexuality, when the government banned homosexuals from federal employment on the justification that the Soviets would lure them into affairs and they would be so ashamed they would become spies for the commies, even as World War II was a giant coming out party as people traveled from their homes to fight or work and thus met other people like them and gay subcultures rose in various cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Well, Gittings didn’t feel a lot of shame. Instead, she was curious. She knew she was different than other women. She knew she liked women instead of men. But she didn’t know why. She read up on the existing literature. But a lot of that was the kind of psychology that saw homosexuals as deviants. She was like, “I’m not a deviant!” So she was unsatisfied with this. In fact, she spent so much time on this journey that she flunked out of Northwestern because she more interested in exploring this than her classes. She soon returned to Delaware, still only 17 years old. She took night classes up in Philadelphia. There, she slept with a woman in her class. That was the first time she had sex with a woman. She liked it.

So by the early 50s, Gittings was determined to be an active queer woman. She started crossdressing and visiting gay bars in New York on the weekends, as she didn’t know of any closer to her home. She was also angry about the idea that she was a degenerate. She just wanted freedom! So she also became involved in the very first active political organizing of modern queer history. She started working for what we now call “homophile” organizations. These were moderate but at the time quite groundbreaking gay rights organizations that largely focused on having their sheer humanity recognized with a conservative society rather than engage in some sort of sexual revolution that wouldn’t happen for another 15 years in the gay community. She moved to California to work for One, Inc., one of these homophile groups. But she found these groups a little too tame. She soon got to know Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the San Francisco lesbian homophile group. But she was like, no one even knows who Bilitis is (a bisexual character from an 1890s French poem about Sappho), so how are people going to know who we are? Plus Bilitis was bisexual, not even a lesbian! This kind of direct speaking to power, or in this case to her elders in the movement, was how Gittings rolled. But Martin and Lyon really liked her and knew what a good organizer she was. In 1958, she went to New York and started a DOB organization there, the first on the east coast. She had to support herself of course and worked the mimeograph machine for an architectural firm for the next ten years.

While working in New York, Gittings met Kay Lahusen. Born in 1930 in Cincinnati, she was raised by her grandparents and became a skilled photographer, even as a child. She knew as a teenager that she was a lot more interested in sex with women than men. She went to Ohio State to become a teacher. There, she fell in love with another girl and they lived pretty openly as a lesbian couple, including moving in together after graduation. But then her girlfriend decided to leave her for a man, a “normal” life, and children. Lahusen was devastated. So she moved to Boston and worked for the Christian Science Monitor as a reference librarian. She was still a pretty open lesbian and one of her coworkers showed her a copy of The Ladder, the Daughters of Bilitis magazine. Lahusen then contacted them and got involved. In 1961, she met Barbara Gittings at a picnic. They soon started dating and become a couple for the rest of their lives.

The real goal of the DOB and other homophile organizations was to upset no one with their sexuality. They were all about presenting as normal 1950s Americans, just that they liked people of the same sex instead of the opposite sex. In 1963, Gittings took over The Ladder to push these views, running it for the next three years. One of the first things she did was hire Kay Tobin, as she was known professionally, as the magazine’s photographer. But the movement really had a problem here. It was convinced it had a problem and that problem was their homosexuality. They would get psychologists to speak to them and the psychologist was all like, yeah you are a bunch of deviants. So this was not a great way to build a social movement. Finally someone spoke out against this. It was Frank Kameny, another early gay rights activist. He simply said that why are we thinking we have an illness when we clearly do not. This was another life changing moment for Gittings. She immediately transformed her politics to an open celebration of being a lesbian. Kay’s pictures of lesbian life soon informed the magazine’s coverage. Gittings got the magazine greater coverage this way too, including being openly displayed in one Greenwich Village store.

By the mid-60s the, both Gittings and Lauhsen were leaders in the growing gay rights movement. They were in the first gay rights parades in front of the White House in 1965. I can only imagine what LBJ thought about that, but Dean Rusk actually publicly talked about it the day before one happened in front of the State Department. These were still respectability protests. They were specifically about rescinding the ban on government employment for homosexuals and thus everyone had to dress like they were applying for a job. But then 1965 was about the turning point for dress in America anyway; pictures of the Free Speech Movement the year before shows nearly everyone dressing very nice so this was a lot more than just queer respectability politics at play here. What made Lahusen so critical here is that as a photographer, she got gay men and women to actually show their faces and come out to the public instead of being shown in disguise or profile as was the usual portrayal in gay magazines.

Gittings and Frank Kameny started the first annual gay rights parade in 1965, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. After the Stonewall Riots in 1969, commemorating that marched with their July 4 parade, so it is often forgotten about but a gay rights parade at this time was a very big deal, one I am sure the right-wing Philadelphia establishment under people such as Frank Rizzo despised. She and Kameny also testified in the 1967 Defense Department hearings over continuing the no-gay policy, countering a government psychologist who said that homosexuality was an illness and a threat to national security. They were still dressed respectability but the “pray for sodomy” buttons they wore to the hearing does suggest a change afoot.

As a librarian professionally herself, Gittings led a group to make gay rights central to librarian culture and created the first gay caucus in any academic professional organization, the American Library Association. In 1972, Kay Tobin noted that an upcoming American Psychiatric Association panel on whether the field was friendly to gays of course had nothing but heterosexual members on the profession on it, though there were gay representatives to rebut them already. They were pissed. So they worked to find a gay psychiatrist to come on the panel, though behind a shelter and using a voice distorter. This was as good as it was going to get in 1972. The next year, the APA took homosexuality from the DSM. A huge victory for justice.

In later years, Gittings spent a lot of time doing TV appearances and other media stuff to promote gay rights. Kay Tobin wrote The Gay Pioneers in 1975, with Randy Wicker, a critical early book on the movement. She moved out of the vanguard leadership of the movement as it became more radical in the later 70s, but was a critical public face for gay rights. In 1999, PrideFest in Philadelphia honored Gittings as the “Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement.” She and Kay collected a huge amount of gay literature, especially contemporary obscure magazines and newspapers and this all became key parts of the nation’s primary sources about the early gay movement. Of course them being central to so much of it helped. They pushed the AARP to recognize long-term gay relationships for the organization’s reduced price insurance plans, achieving that victory in 1997. Meanwhile, Lahusen became a real estate agent in the 1980s and made good money that way. She also organized real estate agents to come out as gay and march as such in gay rights parades.

Gittings died of breast cancer in 2007, after she and Lahusen had been together for 46 years. She was 74 years old. After her death, Lahusen dedicated herself to Gittings’ memory, putting together a book that included many of her pictures of the love of her life. As she aged, Lahusen got to see even more of the victories of the gay rights movement than Gittings had. Her pioneering photographs of gay life also got more attention and she published a book of them. Lahusen died in 2021, at the age of 91.

Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen are buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit other icons of the gay rights movement, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Harvey Milk is in San Francisco and Henry Gerber is in Washington, D.C. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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