WC72 – In Memoriam Barbara Gittings & Ralph Walker

Barbara Gittings  July 31, 1932 – February 18, 2007

An Appreciation by David Carter

It was a short while ago in historical terms that if a teenager who felt she might be lesbian bought a novel about lesbians and her father found the book, he could feel it such a terrible thing that he could not bring himself to speak about it to his daughter but would instead write a letter — even though they lived under the same roof — instructing her to get rid of the novel. He might even say that the novel must not be discarded, for then the evil pages might fall into the hands of another: the book must be burned! Such a teenager might then go seek information in libraries but find only subject headings such as “sexual perversion” and “abnormal psychology.” Finally, the youth, though qualified for membership in an honor society, could be rejected on grounds of “character” on the mere suspicion that she was attracted to other girls.

That we no longer live in such a society is in some part due to all of the above having happened not to a fictional girl but to Barbara Gittings, who then went on to dedicate her life to fighting for the rights and dignity of lesbians and gay men.

She founded the first East Coast branch of the Daughters of Bilitis, America’s first national lesbian organization, and edited the organization’s magazine, The Ladder. She used her editorship to try to push for a more militant stance as well as a more positive and visible image of lesbians, which resulted in her being fired as editor. She took part in the earliest gay pickets from 1965 to 1969 and later became active in the Gay Activists Alliance, an organization her lover, Kay Tobin Lahusen, helped found. She assisted her colleague Frank Kameny in challenging the Defense Department’s efforts to revoke security clearances held by gay people in private industry. She and Lili Vincenz were the first lesbians to appear on a nationally syndicated TV show. Gittings also played a key role in challenging the American Psychiatric Association, which classified homosexuality as a mental illness. She became a leader in the American Library Association Gay Task Force and helped change the way libraries treated gay books. She was on the first boards of both the National Gay Task Force and the Gay Rights National Lobby (the forerunner of the Human Rights Campaign).

She did all this and much more while living on low-paying clerical jobs. More impressively, she was a most sweet and loving lady and remained deeply humble even at the end of her life when organizations competed to honor her and name awards after her. No wonder that Frank Kameny called her the “Founding Mother” of the gay movement and after her death wrote that she was “one of a kind in my own life,” and Arthur Evans said, “She was one of the most decent people I’ve ever known. She brought out the best in everyone.”

Truly, Barbara, we will not see your like again.

Ralph Walker  May 27, 1919 – January 6, 2007

An Appreciation by Sunfire

Retreats at Easton Mountain, typically begin and end with a circle. I can’t count the number of circles I’ve been part of there, but I do know where and when I participated in my first circle of Gay men. It was in the winter of 1980, at the Barn, which was the home of Ralph Walker, the founder of The Loving Brotherhood.
I had joined that organization a few months before, and I came to The Barn not knowing whether to expect a prayer meeting or an orgy. I found a bit of both. I also found in Ralph, a man committed to a spiritual life, though not always sure of the direction his spiritual life was taking.

Ralph introduced me to A Course in Miracles, but that was just one of the ways he fostered my spiritual growth. By bringing together Gay men with a passion for a spiritual life, he showed us all what was possible.

For about twenty-five years, Ralph edited and published the organization’s monthly journal, often folding and mailing all the copies himself. For many Gay men, his voice was one of the few voices telling us that we as Gay men could have spiritual lives — lives rich in meaning and connected to the Divine.
Ralph Walker does not leave a legacy as recognized as Harry Hay’s. But his work was just as important. Over the life of the Loving Brotherhood, about two thousand men joined the organization. Many of them Ralph knew personally. With letters and long phone conversations he guided many of us through troubled times. He encouraged us to take an active role in political causes and to ground that activism in a very real spirituality. He constantly worked on his own spiritual growth. I wasn’t always ready to follow him in all the paths he explored. He didn’t expect me to.

Early in my friendship with Ralph, I remember his commenting on Last Letter to the Pebble People, a book about how friends supported a dying man. His words, after reading that book, were, “Death is a Victory.”

So, Ralph, congratulations on your victory. No one can really know the full extent of your influence — the number of lives you touched and helped and sometimes rescued. If, Ralph, you have a chance now to speak to God in a way that’s more direct than we have here on earth, please tell God that I’m grateful for your life, and the example you gave to all Gay men.

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