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Death of a Gay Rights Pioneer
Barbara Gittings: 'Founding Mother'

Saturday, February 24, 2007

EVERY MOVEMENT for equal rights has its pioneers. Some are well known: Rosa Parks, César Chávez, Betty Friedan. Then there are those who display unparalleled courage but never get the recognition they deserve. Gay rights activist Barbara Gittings was one of those people. She died of breast cancer at her home in Pennsylvania on Feb. 18; she was 75.

The Austrian-born daughter of a U.S. diplomat, Ms. Gittings came out in the 1950s, a time when few homosexuals were seen or heard openly. In May 1965, four years before the Stonewall Riots in New York City that ushered in the modern gay rights movement, Ms. Gittings and 25 other homosexuals picketed the White House to protest employment discrimination in the federal government.

The sign she carried -- "Sexual preference is irrelevant to federal employment" -- is now at the Smithsonian, a gift to the nation last October by fellow activist Frank Kameny, who was fired from his job as an astronomer with the Army because he was gay. He also gave thousands of movement-related documents to the Library of Congress.

Ms. Gittings, Mr. Kameny and Ms. Gittings's partner of 46 years, Kay Tobin Lahusen, would march, protest and agitate for equality over the next four decades. As Ms. Lahusen told us yesterday, "In the old days, you couldn't be a gay rights activist and have a full-time career." Today, gays and lesbians live in an age of wider acceptance. While the struggle is not over, changing hearts and minds was made easier by the efforts of the woman Mr. Kameny called the "Founding Mother" of the movement.

Asked how Ms. Gittings would want to be remembered, Ms. Lahusen said that Ms. Gittings "would want to be remembered for the love she leaves behind. Love of the cause, the gay community; love of justice; love of music and books; and love for me."

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