Kay Lahusen, a pioneering gay rights activist who chronicled the movement’s earliest days through her photography and writing, has died. She was 91.
Known as the first openly gay U.S. photojournalist, Lahusen died Wednesday at Chester County Hospital outside Philadelphia, following a brief illness.
Together with her partner, the late activist Barbara Gittings, Lahusen advocated for gay civil rights years before the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York helped launch the modern LGBTQ era. She captured widely published images of some of the nation’s first protests.
Lahusen “was the first photojournalist in our community,” said Mark Segal, a friend of more than 50 years and founder and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News. “Practically every photo we have of that time is from Kay.”
Lahusen photographed a series of gay rights demonstrations held in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall each July 4 from 1965 to 1969 — and was a marcher herself, carrying signs that said “First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals” and “End Official Persecution of Homosexuals.” She 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.”
Lahusen’s life partner, Gittings, was one of the nation’s most prominent lesbian activists and co-organizer of the “Annual Reminder” pickets in Philadelphia.
They had met in 1961 at a picnic held by Daughters of Bilitis, the first known lesbian organization in the U.S. whose East Coast chapter Gittings had founded. Lahusen was arts editor and shot groundbreaking cover photos of gay women 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.
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, where she gave interviews, helped maintain Gittings’ legacy and kept alive the history of the early gay civil rights movement.
“Stonewall was not the first thing, that’s what she would tell you,” said her friend, Judith Armstrong. “The history is there and the history she definitely wanted to be preserved. … She wanted the story to be out there.”
The New York Public Library houses an extensive collection of Gittings and Lahusen’s papers and photographs.