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Remembering Kay Tobin Lahusen Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

28 May 2021

The photojournalist and gay activist Kay Tobin Lahusen passed away this week in West Chester, Pa. She was 91.

With her longtime partner Barbara Gittings, who published The Ladder, they championed the lesbian rights movement of the last century, becoming early members of the Daugher of Bilitis, the first national lesbian organization.

Lahusen was raised by her grandparents in Cincinnati, developing an interest in photography as a child. "Even as a kid I liked using a little box camera and pushing it and trying to get something artsy out of it," she said.

After attending a private elementary school, she graduated from Withrow High School in 1948 and followed a girlfriend to Ohio State University where she majored in English, planning to become a teacher. She graduated in 1952 and moved in with her girlfriend.

She had been attracted to women since her early teens, despite the prevailing view that gays were psychologically ill. "I decided that I was right and the world was wrong and that there couldn't be anything wrong with this kind of love," she explained.

'I decided that I was right and the world was wrong and that there couldn't be anything wrong with this kind of love.'

But the girlfriend soon came to believe "that we couldn't have a good life together," Lahusen said. "She wanted to have a white picket fence and a hubby and she wanted to have children."

After six years together, it was a devastating loss.

A few years after graduation, Lahusen moved to Boston, working as a researcher at The Christian Science Monitor.

She heard about the 1959 book by the psychiatrist Richard C. Robertiello on "the female homosexual" and went to meet him. "I thought, 'I don't want to be cured, but I do want to find out how to meet other lesbians,'" she said.

He showed her a copy of The Ladder and Lahusen wrote to the publication, eventually meeting Gittings, its editor. They lived together in Philadelphia for many years, supporting their activism by working menial jobs. Lahusen waitressed and worked in a music store.

Lahusen photographed the earliest gar rights protests when it was still dangerous to publicly reveal one was gay. "Occasionally somebody would bring a camera to a picket, but I was the only one who went at it in a sustained way," she remembered.

The Ladder published her photographs of the demonstrations on its inside pages to protect the privacy of the people depicted. But by the mid-1960s Lahusen convinced some women to pose for cover portraits. Her goal, she said, was "taking our minority out from under wraps and what you might call the normalization of gay."

With Franklin Kameny, she and Gittings lobbied the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Lahusen photographed Dr. John E. Fryer addressing the association as Dr. H. Anonymous in a mask and wig to argue the cause. The next year the association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders.

Her photographs are available in the New York Public Library's archive and were a major part of the 2019 exhibition Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50.

In later years, she and Gittings moved to a care facility in Kennet Square, Pa., where Lahusen organized a gay lunch table group. Gittings passed away in 2007 from breast cancer at the age of 74, eight years before same-sex marriages were recognized by the Supreme Court.

She will be buried next to Gittings in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

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