Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Barbara Gittings was one of the leading activists for LGBTQ equality, from the early years of the gay rights movement in the late 1950s until her death in 2007. Born in Austria in 1932 and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, she grew up feeling disconnected from her peers in a time when homosexuality was taboo in American society. She attended college in Chicago where she was called a lesbian. When she saw a psychiatrist in response, the doctor affirmed the label. This knowledge led her on a crusade to find any information she could on homosexuality. Nearly everything she found described it as an illness or deviant behavior. This led her to become an activist for changes in public perception, medical terminology, availability of information, and general civil rights.

Gittings left college after a year and moved to Philadelphia, the place she would call home for most of her adult life, and continued searching for others like herself. She discovered The Ladder, a publication of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), a national lesbian organization. She was one of the charter members of the New York City chapter of DOB and also became acquainted with leaders of a male homosexual organization, the Mattachine Society. In 1963 Gittings became editor of The Ladder and along with her partner, photographer Kay Tobin Lahusen (b. 1930), revitalized the magazine by featuring real women on the cover and expanding nonfiction content. Under their leadership, distribution grew to be worldwide. Gittings continued editing the publication for three years until other DOB leaders found her too progressive.

Gittings participated in hundreds of early gay rights picketing events and marches throughout the nation, notably those in Philadelphia in 1965–69 (commemorated with a Pennsylvania Historical Marker at the northwest corner of South 6th and Chestnut streets). She was a member of a panel of lesbians interviewed by David Susskind on his nationally syndicated show in 1971. It received positive response from homosexuals and heterosexuals alike and helped to promote the idea that the women were not deviants but normal people, something that the general public was just starting to accept.

Barbara Gittings pickets at the second of five Annual Reminder demonstrations at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, July 4, 1966. Photo by Kay Tobin ©Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

Barbara Gittings pickets at the second of five Annual Reminder demonstrations at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, July 4, 1966.
Photo by Kay Tobin ©Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

One of the issues she felt most passionate about was the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). In 1972 she attended APA’s national convention and set up a booth with a large sign that read, “Gay, Proud and Healthy.” She also participated on a panel with gay rights activist Frank Kameny (1925–2011) to address the mental illness question. They were able to persuade a gay psychiatrist, Dr. John Fryer (1937–2003), to join the panel as well. (Because of fears of being stripped of his license, Fryer appeared in disguise as Dr. Henry Anonymous.) The panel was compelling and effective. Largely because of this session, APA removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973.

Reading was another of Gittings’ passions, and she worked tirelessly to make literature on homosexuality available. In the 1970s she was part of a gay task force of the American Library Association (ALA) and compiled a bibliography of gay publications that she updated regularly. She was always on the lookout for books that depicted homosexuals in a positive light, and she promoted distribution to both school and public libraries.

Gittings has been recognized by several organizations for her contributions to LGBTQ equality, including ALA, which awarded her a lifetime honorary membership, its highest honor, in 2003, and APA, which gave her the John Fryer Award for her significant impact on the mental health of gays and lesbians in 2006.

In July 2016, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission installed and dedicated the Pennsylvania Historical Marker for Barbara Gittings at 21st and Locust streets in Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood,” in partnership with Equality Forum.


Karen Galle is on the staff of PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office and has been the coordinator of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program since 2005.