Book review: Barbara Gittings, Gay Pioneer, by Tracy Baim

Baim Barbara GittingsBaim, Tracy. Barbara Gittings, Gay Pioneer. Prairie Avenue Productions. 2015. $25. 236 p. Paper. ISBN 9781512019742.

There is no question that Barbara Gittings- one of the seminal figures of the early LGBT rights movement- deserves a solo biography. While this book’s overall content is reasonably sound, I was uncomfortable with several of the author’s stylistic and bibliographic choices. These issues don’t necessarily preclude the title’s usefulness, but reader beware.

Born in 1932, Barbara Gittings would be witness to, and participant in, many of the earliest LGBT protest demonstrations, organizations, and the like, along with her partner, photojournalist Kay Tobin Lahusen. Gittings eventually focused her energies on two areas: combating psychiatry’s negative view of homosexuality, and raising awareness of “gay books” and libraries’ crucial role in making them available. She died of breast cancer in 2007.
While Baim basically manages to convey the depth and scope of Gittings’ achievements, I was immediately jarred by her constant use of multi-paragraph verbatim quotations from other sources, in lieu of her own analysis and insight.

Of course, citing earlier related works and reproducing first-person interviews can add richness to new content, but Baim does this so unceasingly that the effect soon became both numbing and annoying to me. Some paraphrasing and/or summarizing of this material would have been welcome. While I won’t characterize this book as a “paste job,” it sometimes hovers perilously close.
In addition, while Baim’s bibliography is substantial, the items are listed alphabetically by title: why? Since she usually cites her quoted-from sources by title only once within her text and then later by authors’ last names only, readers wishing to visit a given transcript’s original source may have a challenging time seeking it out, especially since no “Notes” section is provided.

Finally, a technical issue: the oversized paperback’s pages contain small print with only an occasional subhead providing visual relief. Thus, at times, I actually found the book physically taxing to read. (While over 200 photographs from Gittings’ life are included, they are separate from the text.)

Even with these caveats, however, I can reasonably recommend this book for LGBT history collections, since its core information is still valuable. Barbara Gittings deserves every possible plaudit for her life and achievements. This book suffices as tribute, if forewarned readers are prepared to wade through pages of copious quotations from others, rather than via the author’s own voice.

Cathy Ritchie
Acquisitions/Selection Services
Dallas (TX) Public Library

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