The woman behind the lens
by Jen Colletta
Kay Lahusen has seen a lot in her 82 years of life – much of it through the lens of a camera.
Lahusen, hailed as the first out LGBT photojournalist, spent decades capturing some of the most seminal moments in the LGBT rights movement, crafting a stockpile of photographs that can be used to trace the pitfalls and progress of the community.
While her photos documented a wealth of historic moments in American LGBT activism, the pursuance of those pictures was, in itself, a bold act.
"I wanted to show our great diversity and to give viewers someone they could identify with, some positive role models. After all, they were badly needed in the 1960s when most gay people were afraid to be photographed," Lahusen said.
Lahusen, born 1930 in Cincinnati, Ohio, developed her interest in photography at a young age.
She began coming to terms with her orientation while in college and said she long held a "deep conviction that prejudice and discrimination against GLBT people and their orientation is morally wrong."
That ideal led her to join Daughters of Bilitis, the nation's first lesbian rights organization. At a DOB picnic in 1961, Lahusen was introduced to Barbara Gittings, a meeting that sparked a decades-long pairing – prompting Lahusen's move to Philadelphia and influencing her photojournalism career.
"[Barbara] was always a joiner and was inclined to join social-change groups, wanting to, as she said, 'fix things,'" Lahusen said.
Gittings took the helm of DOB's magazine The Ladder – the first national lesbian publication – from 1963-66, and Lahusen served as photographer. The magazine previously used drawings or cartoons on the cover, but Lahusen was committed to photographing real women.
"It wasn't easy for me to find many subjects back then," she said. "I wanted to change that, to bring those willing out into the sunlight and especially to show gay people and gay love."
During their time at The Ladder , Lahusen said she and Gittings sought "to present intellectually stimulating discussions of the major issues holding back the struggle for gay equality, especially the allegation by most psychiatrists that homosexuality was a form of mental illness."
They were eager to broaden the publication's appeal to the entirety of the LGBT community but Lahusen said that the "male chauvinism" that still permeated the community at the time kept most men "from taking The Ladder seriously and from even reading the issues we produced."
Outside of her work on The Ladder , Lahusen was the unofficial photographer of many of the earliest gay rights actions.
She was on hand with her camera at what came to be known as the Annual Reminders at Independence Hall in the mid-1960s, which called for the acceptance of gays and lesbians in mainstream society.
While she documented the occasions, Lahusen was also a part of the action.
"Some participants were fearful, some were proud, others were simply marching in the belief that they had to come out if things were going to change," she said of the atmosphere at the pickets. "It's been said that all social change movements find they ultimately have to take to the streets. Think of the early suffragettes, for example. Of course, when you're marching, you have no crystal ball to tell if you're helping make changes but you hope so, even believe so. I certainly believed we were doing something historically significant, something to help GLBT people as a class in our society."
Lahusen said one of her favorite photos she ever took was from the first Annual Reminder in 1965. It depicts Gittings marching with a sign that read, "Homosexuals should be judged as individuals."
"The word 'gay' was not popular in our cause until about 1970," Lahusen noted.
At the Philadelphia actions, held until 1969, and at other demonstrations staged in Washington, D.C. that urged the lifting of the ban on open gays and lesbians in federal employment, marchers were kept to a strict, conservative dress code.
Lahusen said the code was necessary for the cause, but she embraced its eventual lifting.
"Our thought was, if you want to be employed, look employable, and conventional dress was the order of the day in that era," she said. "Fortunately, times changed and by our 1970s demonstrations, the dress code was abandoned in the midst of the turmoil over anti-war protests and the hippie and free-love movements. I know I certainly was glad when the dress code was abandoned."
Lahusen was not present for a protest that came to be regarded as one of the most pivotal turning points in the LGBT-rights movement: the Stonewall riots of 1969.
Lahusen and Gittings were on vacation at the time but Lahusen said that, when word spread that the LGBT community had rebelled against police discrimination in New York, she was thrilled.
"I don't like violence but I was pretty elated to hear that GLBT people were standing up and fighting back in the midst of a police riot on a seedy, mafia-run gay bar," she said. "Gay people were largely outwitting the police. News of their bravery galvanized gay people in New York and across the country really. The riots were a flashpoint, Barbara used to say, in the gay rights movement and inspired gay people to get organized and step up their efforts to improve the lives of their minority."
She noted that the late Frank Kameny, a contemporary of Lahusen and Gittings's who helped organize the Annual Reminders, always pointed out that their actions predated Stonewall and were undoubtedly influential in encouraging that action.
"We inspired them to go a step further and fight back at Stonewall," she said.
Lahusen was also involved with the efforts to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental illnesses, led by Gittings and Kameny. She lobbied the APA to include a gay panelist in its 1972 forum on psychiatry and homosexuality, and captured shots of that historic discussion that many credit with moving forward the APA's evolution on homosexuality.
In their activism work, Lahusen said she and Gittings always came to agreement on the right approach, sometimes "after long hours of discussion."
And they worked as a complementary team, she said, with Gittings possessing the "higher profile" and Lahusen working in a "support role."
"We brought different talents," Lahusen said. "Barbara was a terrific public speaker, she could always rally the troops. I especially loved photography, making exhibits and doing what you might call promotion work. Barbara was a terrific editor, and I was a pretty good reporter. The ideas we advanced were generally the same and summed up in what Barbara called Kameny's 'great motto': 'Gay is good.'"
The principles of the early activists were illustrated in Lahusen's book The Gay Crusaders, published by Paperback Library in 1972.
The work, which contains in-depth biographical sketches of 15 early pioneers, was published under Lahusen's pen name, Kay Tobin.
While Lahusen was lead author for the book, Randy Wicker was brought on as a co-author, as the publisher believed that having a male name on the book would help its sales, she said.
Lahusen sees the book, and her vast collection of photos, as her greatest contributions to the LGBT-rights movement.
"It's been said that I'm the first gay photojournalist, since I kept at it sporadically over decades. I believed it was a way of preserving gay history."
Her collection is now housed in the Archives Division of New York Public Library, which has published many of the photos online.
Gittings died in 2007 of breast cancer and, while both she and Lahusen have left their separate legacies for the LGBT community, she said their 46-year relationship imparted its own indelible mark – both on her and her community.
"Together, we had a wonderful life."
Jen Colletta is a writer at Philadelphia Gay News.