Teach our history

“Who knows who Barbara Gittings was?” I asked my staff the day after she had died in 2007. Only three of the 16 staff members raised their hands. I flashed an autographed photo of her she had given me after I moderated a discussion with her and a fellow LGBTQ rights pioneer Frank Kameny in Philadelphia the year before. It was an honor to share the stage with those two icons.

Barbara Gittings was a trailblazer for LGBTQ equality. From 1958 to 1963, she organized the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil rights organization in the United States. She edited the organization’s influential magazine, The Ladder, from 1963–66. She worked closely with Frank Kameny in the 1960s, picketing the Pentagon and the White House for its ban on employing gay people. Barbara and Frank stood for the principle that “Gay is Good,” a term Kameny coined, at a time when the federal government purged gays from its ranks, gay men were imprisoned for having sex, and the closet was the norm.

That only three of my colleagues at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an organization fighting for LGBQT equality in the armed forces, knew of her giant legacy, made clear to me that we have an enduring responsibility to teach our history. The responsibility to tell motivated me to write Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, commemorating the tenth anniversary of repeal.

Under “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Pentagon discharged 2–4 service members every day for being gay. Some were subjects of witch hunts. Others faced criminal charges. Many endured harassment, assault and threats. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” codified into law in 1993, was one of several similar bans dating back to World War II.

Fading from memory are the stories of Private First Class Barry Winchell who was bludgeoned to death by a fellow soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky in 1999; the witch hunt of Marines in Okinawa in 1993, of 17 service members from different branches in Hawaii; and of 60 women on the USS Simon Lake the same year; and the purge of Arabic linguists who were gay in the aftermath of 9/11.

In some ways it is not surprising that the 18-year olds now enlisting in our armed forces do not know these stories. They aren’t taught them in high school; it’s not required reading in college ROTC or the military. They were born in 2003, ten years after don’t ask, don’t tell became the law, and seven years before its demise. Those younger than 30 typically come out to at least one friend before they are 15. Vast majorities today support LGBTQ people. They enter the military not having to answer the question, “Are you a homosexual?” Or be subject to intrusive investigations listed in the Homosexual / Bisexual Questionnaire, copies of which SLDN exposed in the 1990’s.

When we do not know the past, we do not understand the present. We lose history’s lessons. We are doomed to refight old battles.

I keynoted a reception to establish an LGBTQ museum in Los Angeles years ago and said that the most powerful institution in Washington, D.C. was not the White House or Capitol, but the Holocaust Museum because it preserved memory and served as a stark reminder for “Never Again.” I should have added that an equally powerful institution is the Library of Congress.

Barbara Gittings was a librarian. She pursued a life-long quest to collect books that depicted LGBTQ people in an affirming light. I recall going to the Fort Worth public library in my youth and finding that the only references for homosexuality were shelved among the psychiatry books that designated us as sick. We have come a long way since then.

October is LGBTQ history month. It is a time when we remember contributions to LGBTQ equality. A first step is to record our history. “Mission Possible completes an important trilogy about LGBTQ people serving in the US military, next to Coming Out Under Fire, by Alan Bérubé and Randy Shilts’ Conduct Unbecoming: Lesbians and Gays in the U.S. Military,” wrote Karen Ocamb for The Los Angeles Blade. I would love to see copies donated to every military base library, and commanders add it to their reading lists.

I remember how Andre Taylor called me during the Hawaii witch hunt in 1997. He spoke in barely a whisper, under his bed covers, with a flashlight illuminating SLDN’s phone number from the D.C. yellow pages he found scouring the base library. No one should have to feel so alone, frightened and targeted because of government persecution. Mission Possible is a cautionary tale of what happens when the government persecutes its citizens. History fades quickly with each generation if it is not passed forward. Let’s learn its lessons.



C. Dixon Osburn is a noted advocate for domestic and international human rights and security.

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C. Dixon Osburn

C. Dixon Osburn is a noted advocate for domestic and international human rights and security.