Kay Tobin Lahusen, pioneering lesbian & gay rights activist, dies at 91

Kay Tobin Lahusen, a pioneering lesbian and gay rights activist who captured the movement’s earliest days in her photography and writing, has died. She was 91.

Known as the first U.S. photojournalist to identify as a lesbian, Lahusen died Wednesday at Chester County Hospital outside Philadelphia, following a brief illness.

Together with her long time partner, the late activist Barbara Gittings, Lahusen advocated for gay and lesbian civil rights years before the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York City.

Lahusen’s widely published images chronicled some of the United States’ first LGBTQ equality protests.

Lahusen “was the first photojournalist in our community,” Mark Segal, a friend of more than 50 years and founder and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News told the Associated Press. “Practically every photo we have of that time is from Kay.”

Kay Tobin Lahusen Barbara Gittings

Kay Tobin Lahusen, right, and Barbara Gittings, are photographed at their Philadelphia home in 1991. Photo: The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Lahusen photographed a series of gay rights demonstrations held in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall every July 4 from 1965 to 1969. She  was a participating protestor, carrying signs that said “First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals” and “End Official Persecution of Homosexuals.”

Gittings, was one of the nation’s most prominent lesbian activists and co-organizer of the “Annual Reminder” pickets in Philadelphia.

Lahusen also documented gay rights protests at the White House and the Pentagon.

“Whatever the Founding Fathers envisioned as the rights and privileges of our citizens, we wanted for ourselves as well,” she told WHYY for a 2015 commemoration. “Somebody had to get out and show their face in public and proclaim things and be aggressive.”

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Lahusen was born Jan. 5, 1930, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was adopted as an infant by her grandparents, who raised her. She attended Ohio State University, and after graduating, Lahusen moved to Boston.

Gittings and Lahusen had met in 1961 at a picnic held by Daughters of Bilitis, the first known lesbian organization in the United States. Gittings founded their  East Coast chapter.

Lahusen was arts editor and shot groundbreaking cover photos of lesbians for the group’s national publication, The Ladder, which Gittings edited.

Lahusen also was a founding member of the Gay Activists Alliance and photographed that group’s protests, called “zaps.” She was there for Philadelphia’s first gay pride march in 1972.

Under the pseudonym Kay Tobin, she co-authored a 1972 book, “The Gay Crusaders,” which profiled the movement’s early leaders.

Lahusen and Gittings also took part in the campaign that led to the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to drop homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. That campaign was made into a play, “217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous,” and “Pose” creator Stephen Canals has said he will make a miniseries about the historic event.

Lahusen and Gittings were a couple for 46 years. After Gittings’ 2007 death, Lahusen spent her later years in a retirement home in Kennett Square, just outside of Philadelphia, where she gave interviews, helped maintain Gittings’ legacy, and kept alive the history of the early LGBTQ civil rights movement.

The New York Public Library houses an extensive collection of Gittings and Lahusen’s papers and photographs.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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