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By Courtney Suciu, Marketing Communications Specialist
Gay rights pioneer Barbara Gittings advocated for a revolution in the inclusion and cataloging of LGBTQ materials in public libraries to create a more positive, supportive, informative environment for all members of the community.
Barbara Gittings grew up during a time when same-sex attraction and relationships were associated with criminality and mental illness – on the rare occasions when the subject was discussed.
As a high school student in Wilmington, Delaware, Gittings had crushes on other girls, but it didn’t seem particularly unusual to her until she was up for membership in the National Honor Society. She was an exceptional student yet her application was flatly rejected. On the grounds, a teacher revealed, of her “homosexual inclinations.”
That was the first time Gittings heard the word “homosexual.” But she didn’t think about it in terms of her own sexuality until she developed a close, platonic friendship with another woman while studying at Northwestern University. People gossiped about the nature of their relationship. The two women started seeing less of each other in order to quash the rumors, and Gittings saw a psychiatrist who confirmed her suspicions.
The rumors about her were at least partly true: she was a lesbian.
Now she had to figure out what that meant.
"My mission was not to get a general education but to find out about myself and what my life would be like. So I stopped going to classes and started going to the library. There were no organizations to turn to in those days. Only libraries were safe, although the information contained was dismal." – Barbara Gittings
The psychiatrist offered to “cure” Gittings of her inclinations, but she couldn’t afford the regular visits. So she went to the library instead. It was the only place where she could find any information about homosexuality at all, even though it was cataloged under the heading “Sexual Perversion” along with books about pedophilia, incest, and sex crimes, and most of it related specifically to men.
None of what she discovered in her research quite meshed with her own experiences as a lesbian. “I thought, this is not about me,” she recalled years later. “There is nothing here about love or happiness. There has to be something better.”
Gittings ended up flunking out of Northwestern, but she found her life’s work: it was up to her to help create that something better.
"For years I would haunt libraries and secondhand book shops trying to find stories to read about my people, and then I became active in other arenas of the gay rights movement, but I always kept an eye on the emerging literature...It began to talk about homosexuals who were healthy and happy and wholesome and who had good lives...That rang the bells for me—libraries, gay books!" – Barbara Gittings
In the late ‘50s and through the ‘60s, Gittings sought out people who were similar to her. She became active in the nation’s first lesbian groups, marched in many of the first LGBT protests, and in 1963 took over as the editor of The Ladder lesbian magazine.
In the years prior to Gitting’s editorship, The Ladder was primarily an apolitical publication that included news articles, poetry, fiction and book reviews. But with Gittings at the helm, photographs of actual lesbians replaced generic line drawings on the cover, and the words “A Lesbian Review” were added as a subtitle beneath The Ladder. The magazine started advocating for visibility of lesbians, explicitly addressing concerns of the lesbian community, and encouraging conversation and debate around those issues.
"I discovered the power of the press, the power to put in what you want in order to influence readers," she said.
When Gittings left her position as editor of The Ladder she focused her passion for the power of the printed word by promoting access to positive, supportive homosexual resources in libraries. When the American Library Association formed its Task Force for Gay Liberation in 1970 (now called the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force), Gittings volunteered on the first professional gay caucus’s founding board.
In 1971, she became the group’s coordinator and spent the next 16 years working “to counter the lies in the libraries about homosexuality, so that gay people will no longer be assaulted or bewildered or demoralized by almost everything they read on the subject.”
"As a teenager, I had to struggle alone to learn about myself and what it meant to be gay. Now for years I've had the satisfaction of working with other gay people all across the country to get the bigots off our backs, to oil the closet door hinges, to change prejudiced hearts and minds, and to show that gay love is good for us and for the rest of the world too. It's hard work – but it's vital, and it's gratifying, and it's often fun!" – Barbara Gittings
For insightful analysis on the profound impact the task force had on classification and organization of gay resources in libraries, check out Melissa A. Adler’s article “’Let’s Not Homosexualize the Library Stacks:’ Liberating Gays in the Library Catalog” (available in GenderWatch).
Adler draws some especially interesting parallels between the work of the Gay Task Force in re-categorizing gay materials in libraries, and the fight Gittings and her colleagues took up with the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as a mental disorder (it was removed in 1973).
There is a compelling overlap in the role of language and categorization and the treatment (as a library subject and as a mental/medical condition) of homosexuality as a pathological condition. Adler points out that the Library of Congress, influenced by the Task Force for Gay Liberation, moved “Homosexuality” from the category of “Sexual deviations” to “Sexual Life” before the APA declassified homosexuality as a mental illness.
In that light, it’s exciting to think about the power of libraries – and activist librarians – to impact culture at large by changing how information is categorized and accessed.