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Kay Lahusen, nationally esteemed gay rights activist and photojournalist, dies at 91

"it is impossible to overstate Kay's importance in the struggle for LGBT rights and dignity," said the head of Lambda Legal.

Katherine "Kay" Lahusen
Katherine "Kay" LahusenRead more

Katherine “Kay” Lahusen, 91, a gay-rights pioneer who never gave up the fight and one of the first photographers to document the struggle, died Wednesday, May 26, in hospice care at Chester County Hospital after contracting an infection.

Ms. Lahusen, with her life partner, the late Barbara Gittings, led early LGBTQ protests in Philadelphia that paved the way for the historic Stonewall riot in New York City in 1969. Together, they helped get the American Psychiatric Association to strike homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Known as the first openly gay photojournalist, Ms. Lahusen was also one of the earliest chroniclers of the gay-rights movement, documenting scenes from the front lines as well as the dignity of LGBTQ life.

“It is impossible to overstate Kay’s importance in the struggle for LGBT rights and dignity,” said Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal, a national gay civil rights organization. “Kay and Barbara worked tirelessly and fearlessly in the foundational fights that laid the ground for everything we’ve accomplished. We owe an incalculable debt of gratitude to their work and example.”

Ms. Lahusen’s individual contributions stand on their own, he said.

“Kay captured the indomitable, imaginative spirit of our movement as a photographer,” Jennings said, “and her courage and vision as an activist and storyteller inspired me and many others of my generation.”

“She was a force to be reckoned with,” said Bob Skiba, archives curator for Philadelphia’s William Way Community Center. “She was just an amazing woman.”

Born in Cincinnati in 1930, she was adopted as an infant by her grandparents George and Katherine Lahusen, who raised her. She attended Ohio State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English. After graduation, she left for Boston, where she met Gittings in 1961 at a picnic of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organization in the United States. They became partners in life and in the battle for gay rights for 46 years until Gittings’ death in 2007. They lived together in New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and, shortly before Gittings’ death, at Kendal at Longwood, the Kennett Square continuing care community where Ms. Lahusen last resided.

Ms. Lahusen’s many photographs documented the early protests and struggles of the gay-rights movement, but she also captured the tenderness of gay and lesbian couples, something not often depicted at the time. Her photos appeared in various publications and are archived in the New Public Library. Her book Gay Crusaders was published under the pen name Kay Tobin with coauthor Randy Wicker.

Ms. Lahusen’s advocacy continued throughout her life, including well after Gittings’ death. She sought to support young people and their efforts to continue the gay-rights movement.

One of those activists is Grete Miller, a filmmaker who worked on a documentary project with Ms. Lahusen. They became friends. But she said she also learned a great deal from Ms. 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.”

Generous in action and spirit, Ms. Lahusen once enlisted Miller’s help in assisting a local middle schooler with a class project on gay rights. And before she died, she asked that donations on her behalf go to a local food bank. She believed individuals could make a difference.

“When there were challenges, she would tell me, ‘Don’t let them get you down. Do something about it,’” Miller said. “Whenever I feel worn down or discouraged by the challenges we face today, or the movement itself, it’s, ‘Do something.’ You can do something about it, and make your voice heard.”

Ms. Lahusen is survived by close friends Judith Armstrong, Ada Bello, John Cunningham, James Oakes, and many others who made up her chosen family.

Her ashes will be interred along with Gittings’ at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, inside a bench designed to express their love for each other and their dedication to show that “Gay is Good,” a slogan on the bench, said Armstrong. Due to the pandemic, a public memorial will be held at a future date.

Donations in Ms. Lahusen’s memory may be made to the William Way Community Center, 1315 Spruce St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19107 or to Kennett Area Community Service, P.O. Box 1025, Kennett Square, Pa. 19348, for their local food cupboard.