On my walk back from Trader Joe’s yesterday I went past Barbara Gittings Way at 13th and Locust where they have newly laid out rainbow crosswalks.
The city has painted rainbows on the crosswalks several times previously, but they’ve always faded quickly, so this time they used a different technique using thermoplastic that’s supposed to last.
The city named this section of Locust in honor of Barbara Gittings in 2012 to celebrate the life of the renowned gay woman.
I met her very briefly, and by “met” I mean I was in the same room with her for a short time.
During my Penn State days I was never what you might call an activist, though I was sympathetic to a lot of the causes that were in the air in the late 60s and early 70s. I did, however, attend various meetings from time to time, which is one reason why I never became an activist. There was so much infighting among the members of most of those groups that I’m amazed they ever managed to do anything.
I don’t recall ever attending an SDS meeting, but I did go to one where there SDS representatives and members of a somewhat less radical group that had the same goals. The purpose of the meeting was to try to draft new members for the respective groups. The SDS reps came off as juvenile nutcases, while the other group seemed eminently reasonable, but perhaps it wasn’t a fair fight, as the less radical group had a Brit as their spokesperson, and Brits always seem to sound smarter than us Yanks. (Well, that was before the era of BoJo and Liz Truss, of course.)
Anyway, after the NYC Stonewall riots in 1969, a group called Homophiles of Penn State (or HoPS) was formed, and I went to a few of their meetings.
It was at one of these that Barbara Gittings made an appearance.
It was a very small meeting, so we just sat around a table, and Barbara being the celebrity guest did most of the talking. Alas, I don’t recall anything of what was said during the meeting, but I remember that Barbara was a very warm and outgoing woman. Soft-spoken, she seemed like nothing could upset her, that she could take anything in stride.
As the meeting was breaking up somebody mentioned that the movie The Boys in the Band was being shown on campus. That play and movie, in case you don’t know, is sort of the gay counterpart of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? except it’s ten times as funny.
I had seen the movie when it had been released the year before in 1970, and I think I was vaguely aware that the gay movement had since declared it verboten, but I wasn’t sure why.
Anyway the mention of the film briefly brought up the controversy and some folks were talking about going to see it, but I remember Barbara saying something to the effect that if you wanted to support the gay movement you should avoid it.
I wish I had asked her why. But the moment passed and I’ve regretted not speaking up ever since.
I assume the reason that gay activists at that time found The Boys in the Band troubling was because one of the characters, Michael, says something like, “If we could only stop hating ourselves.”
Of course that sentiment was anathema to the message that the gay liberation movement was promulgating, but Michael was the only character who felt that way; all the other characters were comfortable with their sexuality. Well, except possibly Donald, who was seeing an analyst. Michael’s problem, as the movie and play made clear, was his Catholic upbringing. The gay activists should have directed their ire towards the Catholic Church not the movie/play.