Tracy Baim reflects on writing the biography of Barbara Gittings, with Kay Lahusen:
Much of LGBTQ history, and history in general, has been lost. Even after photography was invented, the lens (and pen) was often directed subjectively, documenting what the mainstream media thought were the significant moments of the day. Wars, politics, the powerful. Marginalized communities often were left off the front pages of history.
In the 1960s and into the 1970s, Kay "Tobin" Lahusen started to change this. She took thousands of photos at gay protests in front of the White House, in Philadelphia at the Annual Reminders for gay equality, at an important American Psychiatric Association panel that pushed for the removal of homosexuality as a diagnosed illness, at American Library Association kiss-ins for equality, at New York's early pride parades, and much more. Most of her work is now in the New York Public Library.
Kay died last week at age 91.
In 2013, on my drive back from covering the 40th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I stopped in to visit Kay in her retirement community in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. I was there on invitation from her, because Chicagoan Marie Kuda has touted me as a potential biographer of Kay's partner, the pioneering gay activist Barbara Gittings, who had died in 2007. The couple had always wanted to do a book, but it had been an overwhelming task to document all that they had doneKay most of it behind the scenes, and Barbara in living color and B&W, on TV screens and newspapers across the country.
To me Barbara was among the top five gay activists of the last century, and her work continued until her death in this century. Kay was the wind beneath her wings, providing constancy, and documenting the activism every step of the way. They also worked together on The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian magazine, and Kay's photos were sometimes used as covers. Kay's images are everywhere and you don't even know it. They have been used in so many documentaries, books, news articles, and more. And as LGBTQ history finally begins to be taught in many more schools, her work will be a critical component of showing what a few hundred gays did to fight back in pre-Stonewall America.
So meeting Kay was an honor, and I was quite intimidated. She was vetting me, testing me, to see if I was the one she would finally work with to tell their story. She wanted it to be Barbara's story, and it wasmostly. I was able to get hundreds of Kay's photos in, plus photos of Kay, and a bit of her own story. She was very hesitant to be in the book, so we did take some of her story out. But she's really all over itbecause it is her photography that makes that book sing.
I worked fast because Kay's health was not the best, and I wanted to make sure Kay saw its publication. We used a lot of Barbara's own words and speeches she had done. In 2014, Kay had a devastating stroke. So friends read her the drafts of the book. They told me that working on it helped pull her out of her stroke and allowed her to be able to celebrate the book's release in mid-2015, in time for that summer's huge commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the first Annual Reminders in Philadelphia. I attended those events and met a lot of our community's modern stars, including those fighting for marriage equality. Kay was not able to attend, but I stopped by her home nearby to show her the book, get signatures, and thank her for trusting me with her stories.
We kept in communication over the years, and she was always so gracious and proud of the work we did together. It's my only book not rooted in Chicago, and it's among the honors of my life that a legend such as Kay Lahusen, perhaps our community's first photojournalist, allowed me into her life, to share these stories for the next generation to find. Please get and read this book, not because it's mine. But because it is the story of a lifelong partnership that truly changed all of our lives. And will continue to do so. Plus, there are hundreds of photos!
I have so much more to say about Barbara and Kay, but maybe for another day. Below are some of Kay's pics at the New York Public Library and in the book, and some of the two of them together. Their legacy is love for each other and for the community.
The book comes in three forms: Kindle, B&W and 4-color:
Windy City Times obit: https://windycitytimes.com/lgbt/PASSAGES-Kay-Tobin-Lahusen-a-founding-mother-of-the-gay-rights-movement-91/70565.html
New York Times obit: www.nytimes.com/2021/05/27/us/kay-tobin-lahusen-gay-rights-activist-and-photographer-dies-at-91.html