Monday, April 30, 2007

When Giants Walked the Earth

Pioneer Gay rights activist Barbara Gittings at the first homosexual rights demonstration, Philadelphia, July 4, 1965. (credit Kay Tobin Lahusen)

Barbara Gittings was a remarkable woman. She and a group of activists marched for gay rights in front of Independence Hall every 4th of July from 1965 to 1969. These protests were the forerunners of the Stonewall rebellion in 1969 and the New York Pride parade in 1970. In 1970, she and Frank Kameny persuaded the American Psychiatric Association to have homosexuality removed from the APA's list of psychiatric disorders. As her friend Frank Kameny said, it was psychiatry's most successful treatment ever, curing hundreds of thousands of people in one stroke of the pen. She and her partner of 46 years, Kay Lahusen, were part of almost every major event in the early years of the gay rights movement.

This winter Barbara died after a long battle with breast cancer. No, not a battle, as one of her friends said at her memorial service on Saturday, "Cancer is not a battle. If it were a battle, Barbara would have won it." She was that strong, that brave, that invincible.

Many people spoke at the memorial and told wonderful stories of Barbara's life. For personal reasons, I loved this story best: In the late sixties or early seventies, one of Barbara's friends, a Cuban refugee, was soon to become an American citizen. To celebrate, a group of women went to Rusty's, a lesbian bar in Philadelphia. Police raided the bar. Though worried for their own safety, the group was even more alarmed at what an arrest might do to their friend's chances for citizenship. The police lined the women up and demanded that they show identification. Barbara to the rescue. She reached in her wallet and produced -- ta da -- her ACLU membership card.

There were no arrests that night. Gotta love a card-carrying member.

Here is Barbara as I knew her. She was a librarian, and as I listened to the speakers at her memorial gathering, I wrote a thesaurus entry for Barbara: smart, brave, witty, relentless, courageous, creative, and resourceful. Whenever I was with her I felt smart, brave, witty, relentless, courageous, creative, and resourceful, too. She had the gift of encouragement. She always left me feeling stronger and braver and ready fight for the good. She still does.

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