KAY LAHUSEN (also known as Kay Tobin), born on this date, is considered the first openly Gay photojournalist of the Gay Rights movement. Lahusen’s photographs of Lesbians appeared on several of the covers of The Ladder from 1964 to 1966 while her partner, Barbara Gittings, was the editor. Lahusen helped with the founding of the original Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) in 1970, she contributed to a New York-based weekly newspaper named Gay Newsweekly, and co-authored The Gay Crusaders with Randy Wicker.
Lahusen was born and brought up in Cincinnati, Ohio and developed her interest 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 recalled. She discovered while in college that she had romantic feelings for a woman and she had a relationship with her for six years, but after the woman left “in order to marry and have a normal life,” Lahusen was devastated by the loss.
Lahusen spent the next six years in Boston working in the reference library of the Christian Science Monitor. She met Barbara Gittings in 1961 at a Daughters of Bilitis picnic in Rhode Island. They became a couple and Lahusen moved to Philadelphia to be with Gittings. When Gittings took over The Ladder in 1963, Lahusen made it a priority to improve the quality of art on the covers. Where previously there were simple line drawings, characterized by Lahusen as “pretty bland, little cats, insipid human figures,”
Lahusen began to add photographs of real lesbians on the cover beginning in September 1964. The first showed two women from the back, on a beach looking out to sea. But Lahusen really wanted to add full-face portraits of lesbians. “If you go around as if you don’t dare show your face, it sends forth a terrible message,” Lahusen remembered. Several covers showed various women willing to pose in profile, or in sunglasses, but in January 1966 she was finally able to get a full face portrait. Lilli Vincenz, open and smiling, adorned the cover of The Ladder. By the end of Gittings’ period as editor, Lahusen remembered there was a waiting list of women who wanted to be full-face on the cover of the magazine. Lahusen also wrote articles in The Ladder under the name Kay Tobin, a name she picked out of the phone book, and which she found was easier for people to pronounce and remember..
Lahusen photographed Gittings and other people who picketed federal buildings and Independence Hall in the mid to late 1960s. She contributed photographs and articles to Gay Newsweekly, and worked in New York City’s Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, the first bookstore devoted to better literature on gay themes, and to disseminating materials that promoted a gay political agenda. She worked with Gittings in the gay caucus of the American Library Association, and photographed thousands of activists, marches, and events in the 1960s and 1970s. Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols and many other gay activists became her subjects.
More recently, her photographs have been featured in exhibits at The William Way Community Center in Philadelphia and the Wilmington Institute Library in Delaware. In 2007, all of Lahusen’s photos and writings and Gittings’ papers and writings were donated to the New York Public Library. Lahusen and Gittings were together for 46 years when Gittings died of breast cancer on February 18, 2007. Lahusen still lives in Philadelphia.