“See, I decided at eighteen I was right and the world was wrong.”
– Kay Tobin Lahusen, via Making Gay History
Kay Tobin Lahusen, the first openly lesbian photojournalist, has passed away in hospice care after battling a brief illness, at 91. Kay began her lesbian activist efforts when she joined Daughter’s of Bilitis (DOB) in 1961, where she met her partner Barbara Gittings — who she was with for 46 years — before she died of breast cancer in 2007. Barbara was 74.
Barara and Kay met at a Daughters of Bilitis picnic in Boston, 1961, three years after Barbara had founded the New York chapter of DOB, alongside Marion Glass. The pair were passionate lesbian and gay rights activists throughout their lives, devoting more than half a century each to fighting for lesbian and gay liberation.
Despite their hard work pre-Stonewall, Barbara and Kay experienced ageism and discrimination from LGBT groups after the uprising. On a Making Gay History podcast episode with host Eric Marcus, Kay and Barbara discussed how, after the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, their long list of contributions to lesbian and gay liberation were disrespected by newer LGBT activists. New groups were intent on a new vision that simply discarded the efforts of veteran gay and lesbian activists. Stonewall was, and is, viewed as the catalyst for LGBT rights, which, it should be known, is objectively untrue.
They survived it with humor. After the Stonewall uprising, one of the leaders of the new Gay Liberation Front (GLF) questioned what Barbara was doing at a GLF meeting and what “entitled” her to be there. Barbara said “I’m gay, that’s what entitles me.” She was labelled a “dinosaur” and “lackey of the establishment.” Shortly afterwards, Kay bought Barbara and herself two stuffed dinosaurs from a florist to reclaim their rightful, respectable, dinosaur status.
Kay said about the matter:
“We decided we’d make lemonade out of lemons. We used to carry those dinosaurs around to meetings of other gay organizations and conferences in the years that followed. We were dinosaurs in a way, but we were good dinosaurs. Every movement has people who you can call dinosaurs because they started in the old days. But if you started in the early days, so what?”
Feeling disillusioned with existing groups, Kay helped found Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). She was one of twelve members who dissented Gay Liberation Front. She was involved in protests, “zaps,” reported for the GAY newspaper and continued working as a photographer, documenting the cause. She also co-authored The Gay Crusaders with Randy Wicker.
Barbara and Kay played a pivotal role in the fight to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s (DSM) list of mental illnesses. Through work with organisations like Daughters of Bilitis and Mattachine, Kay and Barbara attended many lectures that were usually “on the law and changing the law,” where they could engage with “names in law and ministry and the mental health professions.” They expressed their gratitude to those who didn’t “ignore [them] completely,” on Making Gay History’s podcast.
At the time homosexuality was removed from the DSM, psychiatry played a huge role in societal-level homophobia. Kay said, “the people who were in New York were in that intellectual stew pot there and the going theory at the time was that you were sick and you should go to the doctor and get turned around. Deep analysis. Find out what went wrong in your childhood and so forth. Not too many people just, you know, thought for themselves and thought, this is a crock of shit.” Lesbians being forced to re-examine their so-called “preferences” is not new.
It was through Daughters of Bilitis’ publication, The Ladder (1956-1972) – the first national lesbian publication – where Kay Tobin Lahusen worked towards representing lesbian lives through her photography. “It was very hard to get people at first to pose for The Ladder,” she told NBC news, “people did not want to be known as gay then.” Like JEB (Joan E. Biren), Kay “worked to prominently feature lesbian women and make their images seen.” It wasn’t long before Kay had a line up of women wanting to be photographed by her.
Anne, a personal, professional and political friend of Kay and Barbara’s, said to me: “Kay’s images were both intimate and deliberately public, creating professional documentation of a community and movement that had been ignored or worse. Her material was her life, her partner, her activism. Kay was not a passive onlooker; she was intimately involved in this struggle for liberation, using her lens to help construct a narrative that demanded attention.”
Daughters of Bilitis had “Gab ‘n Java” sessions, talk and coffee, where the women discussed pertinent aspects of lesbian life. This involved “topics like telling your parents. Going to the therapist. Legal issues. Legal problems,” Barbara explained. Kay added another topic: “…should lesbians wear skirts.”
Kay and Barbara eventually became “unhappy with the Daughters of Bilitis’ posture.” It was “sort of a scolding teacher attitude,” which Kay describes as: “you lesbians had better put on a skirt and shape up and hold a job and go to work 9:00am to 5:00.” While Gay Liberation Front was a little too anarchic for the pair, Daughters of Bilitis became a little too strict.
Kay Tobin Lahusen worked relentlessly for the freedom of lesbians and gay men until her death. She is one of many legendary activists who made the brave, admirable choice to advocate for our rights, despite the very real possibility of personal and professional suffering. Along with other remarkable lesbians who have passed, like Barbara Gittings and Alix Dobkin, Kay’s spirit encourages all of us to continue in the quest for complete lesbian liberation.
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