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The Daily Agenda for Tuesday, July 31

Jim Burroway

July 31st, 2012

TODAY IN HISTORY:
First Gay Rights Protest at the Pentagon: 1965. That year marked several important milestones in the history of organized gay protest. In April, gay rights advocates held the first ever pickets in front of the White House demanding equal treatment in federal employment and other areas of discrimination. During the year, those pickets would expand to the U.S. Civil Service Commission, Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, and, on this date in history, the Pentagon. Participants in that picket line included gay rights pioneers Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings (whose birthday is also today; see below), Jack Nichols and eight others. Another 46 years would pass before the military ban on gays serving openly would finally be out the door. The ban officially ended last year on September 20. The New York Public Library has a small online digital gallery of that first Pentagon protest.

Henry Willson (left) with Rock Hudson.

TODAY’S BIRTHDAYS:
Henry Willson: 1911. The future Hollywood agent was born for show business; his father was vice president of the Columbia Phonograph Company and president of Columbia Gramophone Manufacturing Co. Alarmed at his son’s interest in tab dance, he sent Henry to a boarding school in Asheville, North Carolina where he thought rough sports, rock climbing and backpacking would straighten his son out. Needless to day, it didn’t. In 1933, Henry moved to Hollywood and became a talent scout for Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick, discovering Lana Turner (although not at a drug store counter, as legend had it), Joan Fontaine and Natalie Wood.

But his real claim to fame was his uncanny knack for finding (and often, allegedly, bedding) the hottest beefcake stars of the 1950s. His “Adonis factory” transformed Robert Moseley into Guy Madison, Francis Cuthbert into Rory Calhoun, Merle Johnson into Troy Donahue, Arthur Kelm into Tab Hunter, Robert Wagner into, well, Robert Wagner, and most famously, Roy Fitzgerald into Rock Hudson. That minor detail about some of them lacking discernable talent proved to be of little hinderance to breaking into show business. Willson pesonally coached his charges in how to act, how to behave, and how to butch it up if they were lacking in that particular area. He staged “dates” for his gay stars when needed, and he even talked Hudson into a three year marriage to his secretary when rumors began to become a little too active.

While most of his male clients were heterosexual, the disproportionate number of gay male leads in his stable led many to assume that all of his clients were gay. And as Willson’s own homosexualit was public knowledge, many of his clients, gay and straight, began distancing themselves from him as he became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and also as he became increasingly paranoid and fat. His influenced waned through the 1960s, and by 1974 he became a ward of the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital, where he died of cirrhosis of the liver. With nothing left of his estate, he was buried in an unmarked grave in North Hollywood. In 2005, Willson became the subject of Robert Hofler’s endlessly entertaining biography, The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson.

Barbara Gittings: 1932. Her friend and fellow gay rights activist Jack Nichols once heralded Barbara as “the Grand Mother of Lesbian and Gay Liberation.” That’s not much of exaggeration when one considers what she had accomplished for the LGBT community. Her quest for equality and dignity began when she flunked out of her freshman year at Northwestern University because she spent too much time in the library trying to understand what it meant to be a lesbian. Her mission since then was to tear down what she called “the shroud of invisibility” that facilitated the ongoing criminal persecution of homosexuality as well as its being regarded as a mental illness. She organized the New York chapter of the Daughters of Billitis in 1958, and she gained a national platform within the gay and lesbian community as the editor of the pioneering lesbian journal The Ladder in the mid-1960s.

No Limits: Barbara Gittings picketing the White House, 1965.

In 1963, she met Frank Kameny, the pioneering gay rights activist based in Washington, D.C. He was, as she described him, “the first gay person I met who took firm, uncompromising positions about homosexuality and homosexuals’ right to be considered fully on a par with heterosexuals.” Together, they formed a collaboration that would transform the gay rights movement from one of timidity and defensiveness to bold action and determined demands for equality. Those actions included the first ever gay rights protests in front of the White House, Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, and the Pentagon, all beginning in 1965. The move was audacious — the Daughters of Bilitis officially opposed picketing at the time, and they would force her removal as editor of The Ladder in 1966 over the issue — but Gittings pressed forward, convinced that invisibility would fall only when gays and lesbians themselves took the steps to boldly step out of the shadows.

Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, and John E. Fryer as “Dr. H. Anonymous” at the 1972 APA panel on homosexuality.

The pair’s greatest accomplishment came in the campaign to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders. In 1971 Kameny and Gittings organized an exhibit at the APA convention in Washington, D.C.. While there, they attended a panel discussion on homosexuality, and were outraged to discover that there were no gay psychiatrists on the panel. Kameny grabbed the microphone and demanded that the APA hear from gays themselves. The following year they were invited to participate in a panel discussion entitled “Psychiatry, Friend or Foe to Homosexuals? A Dialogue.” Gittings convinced Dr. John E. Dryer, a gay psychiatrist to take part. But he would do so only on the condition that his participation remain anonymous, and that he could wear a disguise and use microphone to alter his voice. “Dr. H. Anonymous’s” participation created a sensation at the convention as he described how he was forced to be closeted while practicing psychiatry. Gittings, in turn, read aloud letters from other gay psychiatrists who refused to participate out of fear of professional ostracism. The following year, homosexuality was removed from the APA’s list of mental disorders, and Gittings celebrated by being photographed with newspaper headlines, “Twenty Million Homosexuals Gain Instant Cure.”

In the 1970s, Gittings’ passion returned to where she first tried to find information about what it means to be a lesbian, the library. She helped to found the American Library Association’s Gay Task Force. That’s where she got the idea for a gay kissing booth at the ALA’s 1971 convention in Dallas. “We needed to get an audience,” she remembered. “So we decided… let’s show gay love live. We were offering free—mind you, free—same-sex kisses and hugs. Let me tell you, the aisles were mobbed, but no one came into the booth to get a free hug. So we hugged and kissed each other. It was shown twice on the evening news, once again in the morning. It put us on the map.” She continued, “You know that kissing booth wasn’t only a public stunt. It gave the message that gay people should not be held to double standards of privacy. We should be able to show our affections.”

She died in 2007 after a long battle with breast cancer. She is survived by Kay Tobin Lahusen, a fellow gay rights advocate and her partner of 46 years. You can see a personal remembrance of Barbara Gittings by one of her colleagues, Jack Nichols, here.

If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).

And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?

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