Ruth Simpson, a leader in the gay liberation movement who wrote a well- regarded critique of social and political attitudes toward lesbians in the 1970s, died May 8 in Woodstock, N.Y., after a series of illnesses. She was 82.
Simpson became prominent in 1970, when she led the New York chapter of Daughters of Bilitis, the nation’s oldest lesbian-rights organization. As president, she began to steer it in a more activist direction, which included establishing one of the first lesbian community centers in the United States.
She also wrote “From the Closet to the Courts,” a book that examined discrimination against lesbians in various arenas, including religion, psychiatry, the legal system and the women’s and gay rights movements.
Originally published in 1976 by Viking Press and reissued last year by Take Root Media, it was unusual for its time, not only because few major publishers were interested in works about lesbianism but also because it blended personal history with analysis.
“It was a pioneering book. In some ways it was a very brave book, personal and also political,” said Lillian Faderman, a scholar of lesbian literature and history who teaches at Cal State Fresno. “I think women in the lesbian community found it very exciting and liberating.”
Simpson was born March 15, 1926, in Cleveland, the daughter of politically progressive parents who were active in the labor movement and gave her what Simpson described as “a gentle and lovely childhood” despite their poverty.
“If, indeed, the parental model is instrumental in shaping the child’s future life,” Simpson wrote in her book, reflecting on her upbringing, “I should be heterosexual. All the joy I experienced as a child from my parents’ happy marriage, however, has done nothing to alter the fact that I am a lesbian.” But she kept her sexual identity from others for years.
At what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, she studied drama and English, graduating in 1947. She briefly pursued acting on Broadway but found little success and switched to public relations after a few years.
By 1955, she was an executive in a major New York public relations firm. She continued in her career until 1969, when she attended her first Daughters of Bilitis meeting.
In a radical change for the group, some members, including Simpson, began to emerge from the closet to march in protest rallies and participate in other public forums. Their boldness alienated many of the more conservative members and attracted the attention of police, who threatened to arrest Simpson at a meeting in late 1970 because there was no occupancy sign on the wall. The case was dropped when the officers failed to appear in court, but it was a galvanizing event.
A short time later Simpson presided over the opening of New York City’s first community center exclusively for lesbians. Like another center that opened in Los Angeles about the same time, it was intended as a friendly haven and an alternative to lesbian bars.
Simpson later became a lecturer who spoke around the country, particularly to dispel myths about lesbians. “The average lesbian does not go around smoking cigars and making her partner drink her bath water,” she said in a 1971 New York Times article about the growing lesbian liberation movement.
In 1976, she moved from New York City to Woodstock, N.Y., and became a community activist. In 1982, she started producing a weekly public cable talk show on politics called “Minority Report.” She taped the last show the week before she died.
Simpson is survived by her partner of 37 years, Ellen Povill.