Barbara Gittings, that lady in the “hug a homosexual” booth

Just a photo that came across my stream, taken for Life magazine but not published there. This is from ALA, in 1971. I saw the photo and wanted to know more about it.

As a former member of SRRT and someone who knew about early GLBT activities within ALA (and in the current political climate) from reading Revolting Librarians, I enjoyed seeing this photo but I had a lot of questions. Who were these people? Who planned this? How was it received? So, like any good librarian, I researched.

Some other folks on facebook filled in some of the blanks about this event. A quote from another librarian, pulled form a relative who commented on his timeline “ALA’s Gay and Lesbian Task Force was the first such professional organization in the country. And with their bibliographies they helped create new areas of research.” A few more photos of the SRRT booth are at NYPL.

The two women are identified as Barbara Gittings and Alma Routsong better known by her pen name Isabel Miller and were well known activists of the time. Israel Fishman the founder of SRRTs Task Force on Gay Liberation (later to be called the Gay Task force and splitting off to what is now its own round table, the GLBTRT) was the one who planned the stunt. Other reports of this booth activity come from unlikely places such as the neighboring booth where RUSA (then known as Reference and Adult Services Division) was located. Their history page reports…

Plans for the division’s booth in the ALA Professional Exhibit area at the 1971 ALA Conference in Dallas included scheduling different board members to be on-hand to meet with visitors. When the “Hug a Homosexual” and other exuberant and high-spirited activities in a neighboring booth proved newsworthy to the extent that television cameras appeared and reports were broadcast nationwide, an on-hand board member from a conservative community shielded his face and moved to the remote side of the booth. At another point, when the RSD booth was staffed by a librarian clad in the habit of her religious order, a young volunteer who was intimidated by the boisterous goings-on in her booth came next door seeking “sanctuary.” According to American Libraries, “Farcical tumult reigned in the exhibit area when the Gay Lib group staged a ‘Hug-A-Homosexual’ stunt that attracted press and television but few hugs.

Library Journal tumblrblogged this last June and noted

For those that are interested, the booth received a (predictably) mostly negative reaction, with little to no people stopping by for a free hug. So the staffers of the booth hugged and kissed each other. Gittings kissed Patience and Sarah author Alma Routsong (aka Isabel Miller) while cameras were rolling and made the nightly news. That same year she appeared with a panel of lesbians on the David Susskind Show to debunk gay stereotypes of the time. She was approached in a supermarket a week after the appearance by a middle-aged couple who claimed “You made me realize that you gay people love each other just the way Arnold and I do.”

The book Before Stonewall has called this event “The first gay kissing booth” and is worth reading for more great stories about what a nifty person Gittings was and what sort of work she did within ALA. Here is a quotation from a blog post after her death in2007 discussing what drew her to librarianship.

One of Gittings’ proudest achievements was what she called “combatting lies in the library.” Gittings had experienced her first attractions to women when she was in high school. She was denied membership in the National Honor Society by an advisor who said she had “homosexual tendencies,” and had been told by her father, with whom she was close, to destroy the book The Well of Loneliness which he found in her bedroom when she was in high school. Determined to understand her own path, she spent most of her freshman year at Northwestern University in the library instead of in class, searching for books and information about being a lesbian. What little she could find was catalogued under “sexual perversion” and “sexual deviance.” She dropped out of Northwestern then to pursue the life of an activist and never returned to get her degree.

There are many more anecdotes and names named in Wayne Wiegand’s Encyclopedia of Library History. I know for people who are more on the inside of this movement a lot of this is just old news, but I hadn’t known a lot of this before. And, at this time in history with some important cases before the Supreme Court and public opinion rapidly shifting, it’s neat to look back and see at least part of the profession taking an early and affirmative stand for equality.

SRRT Statement to ALA Council, 6/28/06

[reprinted with permission from the Library Juice blog]
The Action Council of the Social Responsibilities Task Force made the decision that we could not leave New Orleans without issuing a statement bearing witness to what we have seen, heard and experienced while here during ALA’s annual meeting.

We have witnessed that the spirit, hospitality and creativity of New Orleans is alive and well. So too is the generosity of all those who have traveled from all points of the globe to lend a hand in cleaning debris, in restocking shelves, rebuilding homes and in bringing rays of hope to a community of people, many of whom feel largely abandoned and forgotten.

We have also witnessed that New Orleans and surrounding regions remain terribly broken and languishing nearly one year after hurricanes and political negligence inflicted horrible injuries from which the area continues to suffer.

We urge all our fellow ALA members and friends to return to our homes and libraries ready to share what we have witnessed and to pressure the federal government to mobilize the financial, organizational and human resources necessary to make this region and its people whole again. SRRT also wishes to note that the greatness of the United States lies, not in its military power, mammoth bank accounts, mighty corporations and culture of consumption, but rather in the simple humanity, generous hearts and helping hands of its ordinary people. These are the forces that can heal this region, and they must be given the resources and opportunity to do so.

fighting poverty @ your library, or outside it

You may have seen the letter to the editor that Eli and I wrote talking about the restaurant review section of the conference issue of American Libraries. We said something to the effect that calling a place with entrees $20 and under “low priced” [with no lower option] seemed to miss the boat in terms of the budget that many librarians are working with. One of the reasons that another run for Council does not appeal to me is not only because of the cash involved in six trips in three years, but the fact that discussion of the high prices of Council participation on Council lists can be met with the response that maybe you shouldn’t be on Council until you can afford to be. Maybe they’re right and maybe they’re not, but the presumption itself raises my hackles.

That said, I’m not poor. I’ve got a job that pays, health insurance and rent that I can afford, almost no debt, and income potential from several sources. I own a house and I have a good education that, barring disaster, cements my ability to maintain these things. I have a support network in place that can help even if there is a disaster. Many other people are not so fortunate, and I work with them every day, most librarians do too. I talk about the ways that librarians can address social issues in fairly simple ways in many of my talks when I talk about the social implications of software choices. It’s a topic I bring up a lot.

A few resources that I’ve seen lately include Mary Minow’s webcast Library Services and the Homeless: A Legal Perspective with this supporting documentation from the Hunger Homelessness and Poverty Task force of SRRT Just a Little Understanding: A Social-Service Provider’s Perspective on Homeless Library Users. John from HHPTF pointed me towards this story today about the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library’s program putting computers directly into Horizon House a daytime homeless center in Indiannapolis. HHPTF blog has a bit more info.

ALA Elections – some picks

I haven’t spoken much about who I’m voting for in the ALA Elections because I suspect only a very small subset of you care, and because I haven’t even gotten my ballot yet. That said, Library Juice has two lists of picks from people who I generally agree with politically. If you are a voter in the ALA elections, vote for people you know, don’t just use all your votes because you have them. Bullet voting makes each vote count every so slightly more. Leslie Burger is my pick for president, but then again I voted for Michael Gorman.

libraries and poor people, new blog

The Social Responsibilities Round Table of ALA tackles a lot of different social justice issues. They have a task force called the Hunger, Homelessness and Poverty task force that has just started a blog with a thought-provoking first post “Are Public Libraries Criminalizing Poor People?“. [libact]