Behind the lens with photojournalist Kay Lahusen
If today’s lesbian power couple are the celebrities Ellen De Generes and Portia da Rossi, before there was Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and of course, there was activist Barbara Gittings and her partner, the photojournalist Kay Lahusen.
While Gittings took the spotlight in her fight for LGBTQ rights, Lahusen helped document LGBTQ history as the first openly gay photojournalist.
Kay Lahusen: Starting young
Born January 5, 1930 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Lahusen first became interested 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.
In college, she had her first relationship with a woman. This lasted for six years and their breakup devastated her when the other girl decided “to marry and have a normal life.”
“The summer after I graduated, in 1948, I met a girl who had gone to the same high school I had. We hadn’t met before. I fell in love with her,” she related.
Revealing the period of confusion and torment she felt during that time, she said: “I just decided that I was right and the world was wrong and that there couldn’t be anything wrong with this kind of love.”
Kay Lahusen: Reaching out
After graduating, she moved to Boston and worked at the reference library of the Christian Science Monitor.
That was where she first heard of the book, Voyage From Lesbos: The Psychoanalysis of a Female Homosexual, by the psychiatrist Richard Robertiello.
She contacted Robertiello on the pretext of doing research in order to get in touch with other lesbians. In response, he gave her an old copy of The Ladder, the first national lesbian publication.
Discovering the paper was founded by the lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), she joined the organization during an annual picnic in Rhode Island and first met Gittings there.
“After a brief courtship, we settled into her efficiency apartment in Philadelphia. We’ve been together in the gay cause ever since,” Lahusen shared in the book, Homosexuality: A History, by Vern Bullough.
Kay Lahusen: Snapping moments
When Gittings took over The Ladder, Lahusen became the publication’s photographer who wanted to use photographs of real women on its covers instead of the previous cartoon artworks.
“It wasn’t easy for me to find many subjects back then. I wanted to change that, to bring those willing out into the sunlight and especially to show gay couples and gay love,” Lahusen said.
Her first, full-face portrait photo for the cover was another well-known lesbian activist, Lilli Vicencz.
Likewise, Lahusen was present at the moments of the growing LGBTQ movement, taking pictures of their protests, like the Annual Reminders at Independence Hall in the ’60s.
“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 related.
Kay Lahusen: Love & legacy
When the Stonewall riots happened, the couple were on vacation but were elated over the news. However, though they still tried to keep up with the activism, times had changed as more LGBT organizations started forming.
Still, the two warriors chose to continue fighting and, together with Frank Kameny, took on the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for their antigay policies and culture– and won.
In 2007, when Lahusen was collecting her photographs for a project on the history of the gay rights movement, Gittings became sick of breast cancer.
At the age of 74, Gittings died on February 18, 2007. Lahusen described their working tandem as complementary.
“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,” she said.
Currently, Lahusen lives an assisted living facility. However, there is a spot at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC reserved for her next to Gittings’ burial place.
“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,” Lahusen said.
“I certainly believed we were doing something historically significant, something to help lift GLBT people as a class in our society.” she added.