Meet Kay Lahusen, America’s first openly lesbian photojournalist
Meet Kay Lahusen – more commonly known as Kay “Tobin” in the gay rights movement – who is the first openly lesbian photojournalist in the US.
Between 1964 and 1966, Lahusen’s photos appeared on the cover of The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in America, while her partner Barbara Gittings was the editor.
The photojournalist then went on to help with the founding of the original Gay Activists Alliance; contributed articles and photos to the New York-based paper Gay Newsweekly; and co-authored The Gay Crusaders with activist Randy Wicker.
Throughout the middle of last Century Kay was one of the most prominent and influential LGBTQ+ activists working in America.
But what inspired Lahusen? Where did she grow up? And how did she become such a significant figure in the LGBTQ+ rights movement? Here’s all you need to know.
Born and raised in Cincinnati
Born on 5 January 1930 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Lahusen grew up in a middle-class household – her mum was a housewife and her dad was a car mechanic. Lahusen told OutHistory that, as a child, she was a tomboy who played with toy soldiers and dreamed of becoming an architect.
She developed her interest in photography during her childhood, telling the quarterly lesbian journal Sinister Wisdom: “Even as a kid I liked using a little box camera and pushing it and trying to get something artsy out of it.”
Brought up in Cincinnati, Lahusen went to an all-girls high school, where she met the woman she went on to have her first romantic relationship with. Talking about her first sexual feelings for another woman, Lahusen told OutHistory: “I tried to kid myself for awhile that this was just the world’s greatest friendship.
“And I remember reading Plato and all of that stuff. After a year or so, I finally faced the fact that it wasn’t just the world’s greatest friendship, that there was a hell of a lot of sexual desire and activity involved and that there was a name for this. And it was homosexual. And so I had to come to grips with that label.”
Lahusen had a six-year relationship with her then lover, which lasted throughout her time at college. She lived with her then girlfriend for a couple years after graduating from college in 1952, but her lover, who struggled with her sexuality, then left her to get married and lead a “normal life”. Lahusen was left devastated and heartbroken.
Relocating to Boston
In 1956, soon after the break-up, Lahusen moved to Boston, where she worked in the reference library for The Christian Science Monitor. During these years, she began to explore her sexuality further. “I looked up homosexuality and found that some shrink had written a book,” she told OutHistory. “
Richard Robertiello had written a book called Voyage from Lesbos, where he claimed to have cured three lesbians.” So she made an appointment to see Robertiello and drove down to New York City to visit him. But, instead of asking for her gayness to be “cured”, Lahusen asked Robertiello about how she could find more lesbians.
She explained the meeting to Eric Marcus for his book Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights.
During her visit, Robertiello directed her to Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian activist group in the States, which also published The Ladder, America’s first nationally distributed lesbian publication.
“I asked him a couple of questions about what made people gay, which I wasn’t really interested in,” she said. “Then I came to the real question, ‘How do I meet others?’ So he said, ‘Oh, if that’s what you want, that’s easy.’ He reached over on his desk and pulled out this old copy of The Ladder and gave it to me.
“He said, ‘Here. This is published by the Daughters of Bilitis. They have an office here in New York. You can call them up. Here’s the phone number.’
Well, I almost fell off the chair. I said, ‘That’s enough,’ and even though I only spent 10 minutes with him, I wrote him my check for $20 for the full hour. I was lifted to the skies, but I was so thrown I couldn’t even think of contacting DOB that minute. I had to regroup.”
Daughters of Bilitis and meeting Barbara Gittings
Lahusen joined Daughters of Bilitis, and started going to the group’s meetings. In 1961, she met Barbara Gittings at a Daughters of Bilitis picnic in Rhode Island. Gittings, who founded the East Coast chapter of Daughters of Bilitis, was a key LGBTQ+ rights activist and is often regarded as the mother of the gay rights movement in the US.
The pair soon became a couple, staying together until Gittings’ death from breast cancer in 2007.
Both Lahusen and Gittings became key contributors to The Ladder, with the latter being editor from 1963 to 1966. Lahusen was instrumental in changing the front covers of The Ladder from simple, line drawings, to photographs of lesbians.
From September 1964, she started photographing lesbians for this – initially these images showed women from behind, hiding their identities – however Lahusen’s aim was to get full-face portraits of lesbians on the cover.
In January 1966, she succeeded, when Lilli Vincenz, a prominent lesbian activist posed for the cover with her face in full view.
Lahusen also contributed written articles to the publication, writing under the moniker Kay Tobin, a name she reportedly found in a phonebook and thought was easier for people to remember.
By the end of her stint at the magazine, Lahusen has said there was a waiting list of women who wanted their faces on the magazine’s cover.
From the mid-1960s onwards, Lahusen began to photograph gay activists – as well as protesting herself – in organized pickets held in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia each 4 July from 1965 to 1969.
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Called “Annual Reminders”, Lahusen photographed LGBTQ+ activists including Gittings, Frank Kameny, and Jack Nichols, taking part in these rallies. Lahusen soon began contributing articles and photos to Manhattan paper Gay Newsweekly, and worked in the Oscar Wilde Bookstore, a gay bookshop in New York City.
She also worked with Gittings in the gay bloc of the American Library Association. She went on to co-found the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) in 1970, and later the Gay Women’s Alternative in New York City.
In 1972 she co-authored The Gay Crusaders with Randy Wicker, a collection of biographies of gay activists.
Later in her life, Lahusen became involved in real estate, but she still kept her activist streak – she placed adverts in LGBTQ+ papers, and got agents to march in New York City’s Gay Pride Parade. In 2007, Lahusen and Gittings’ photographs and articles were donated to the New York Public Library, where they are archived today.
Lahusen, who is now 88, currently lives in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. She plans to be buried next to Gittings in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.