America’s first openly gay photojounalist Kay Tobin Lahusen dies at 91

Maggie Baska May 29, 2021
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Kay Tobin Lahusen

Kay Tobin Lahusen, a pioneering LGBT+ rights activist and photojournalist, has died after a brief illness at the age of 91. (Photo provided by Mark Segal/YouTube/Harbinger Media)

Kay Tobin Lahusen, a pioneering LGBT+ rights activist and photojournalist, has died after a brief illness at the age of 91.

Lahusen, who was the first openly gay American woman photojournalist, died Wednesday (26 May) in hospice care at Chester County Hospital outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Lahusen had contracted an infection when she sadly passed away.

Lahusen was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1930 and was adopted as an infant by her grandparents, who raised her. She attended Ohio State University, and after graduating, she moved to Boston, Massachusetts.

It was in Boston where she first met Barbara Gettings, who would become her life partner. The two women met at a 1961 picnic of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organisation in the US.

Lahusen and Gittings lived in New York, Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware throughout their 46-year relationship. The couple remained fierce LGBT+ rights activists throughout their lives. The Associated Press reported Lahusen was a founding member of the Gay Activists Alliance and took part in Philadelphia’s first Pride march in 1972.

Kay Tobin Lahusen’s photographs chronicle the early days of the gay civil rights movement in the US. Her photos appeared on the cover of The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in America, between 1964 and 1966. Gittings was the editor.

The New York Public Library has archived a large collection of Gittings and Lausen’s publications, papers and photographs.

Gittings died in 2007, but Lahusen continued on their work to advance LGBT+ rights.

Mark Segal, a close friend of Lahusen and founder and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, wrote in an emotional tribute to Lahusen that the queer community “lost a major figure in LGBT history this week”. He added that he will miss “our rather animated discussions”, her “stubbornness” and “her friendship that went back 53 incredible years”.

Activist and filmmaker Grete Miller told The Philadelphia Inquirer that she became friends with Lahusen after the two worked on a documentary project. Miller shared that she learned a lot from Lahusen.

“I learned that activism is a daily thing,” Miller said. “It is not about glory. It is not about fame. It is about getting up every day, which is what Kay did, and fighting the good fight, doing all the things for the people you care about for something that is bigger than yourself when no one is looking.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Lahusen is survived by her close friends Judith Armstrong, Ada Bellow, John Cunningham, James Oakes and many others.

Kay Tobin Lahusen’s ashes will be interred alongside Gittings’ at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington. The news outlet said the ashes will come to rest within a bench designed to express the couple’s love for each other. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the bench is inscribed with the slogan: “Gay is Good”.

A public memorial will be held on a future date due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.



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