Activist Kay Lahusen celebrates 90th Birthday

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If you’ve seen photographs of the 1965-69 Independence Hall Demonstrations, where gay men and lesbians marched demanding equality, chances are that picture was taken by Kay Lahusen. A prolific activist along with her partner, Barbara Gittings, Lahusen photographed many of the early LGBT activists during their marches and events, including Frank Kameny, Marty Robinson and Isabel Miller. She also photographed gay and lesbian couples in moments of tenderness, something that was not often seen at the time. Her photograph of Lilli Vincenz was the first full-face photo of a lesbian on the cover of the influential lesbian publication “The Ladder.”

For a time in the ’80s, Lahusen had ads in this very paper when she worked as a real estate agent. In 2007, her and Gittings’ papers were donated to the New York Public Library. Several of her photographs were on display at an NYPL exhibit during Stonewall 50. Lahusen now lives in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and she still follows the movement and politics closely, with TV news on in the background as she goes about her day. I spoke to Lahusen by phone about her life, her history and her birthday.

How does it feel to be 90?  I never pay any attention to birthdays; it’s my friends who think they’re important. I feel it’s a great time to be alive. Everything is so interesting with Mayor Pete and the impeachment. I want to be around to see what happens. So I’m trying to take good care of myself but have a good time too.

What LGBT people in history do you admire?  Oh gosh, so many of them. I’ll start with my friend Barbara Gittings, my partner for 46 years. I wrote a book about her and Frank Kameny, and Jack Nichols, and Troy Perry, and all the gay activists of a bygone era that nobody remembers much anymore.

Yes, the old dinosaur club.  I’ll also mention you, because you publish the marvelous Philadelphia Gay News for 45 years. And it chronicles gay history in Philadelphia, and that is very important. You helped put us on the map.

You and Barbara were together a long time. What made your relationship so special?  She was lots of fun to live with, and she super dedicated to the cause, so she brought me along into the cause. That was so important in my life. She was fun and she was interesting, and she was smart. Sounds like you and Jason.

What advice would you give to young LGBT couples for a healthy relationship?  Laugh a lot. Join the gay movement so you’re caught up in something bigger and more fun than the average person could possibly imagine. Eat a lot of good food. Have a good dog all the time in the house, that’s very important.

What did you enjoy the most of all your years as an activist.  Oh, I can’t say any one thing. I’ve had so many good times. I really enjoyed the first picket lines when we came out in public for the first time. It felt really good to be out in the sunshine. I had a great time working in the American Library Association gay group. We were trying to get more positive books into libraries, which I think is terribly important. I published my book about famous early activists. More recently I had a book published by NYPL that has many of my old photos in, and that was very gratifying.

So visibility is one of the hallmarks of your life?  Oh, absolutely. I enjoyed working on “The Ladder.” I tried to put wonderful women on the covers. That was very important, because before then we only had drawings on covers. We went against the American Psychiatric Association and succeeded in removing homosexuality from the mental illness allegation. I wasn’t at Stonewall, but I certainly admired it. I had a lot to say about it and write about it. I’ve had a terrific life. I think gay couples, getting back to that question, should get involved, and give it all they’ve got. It’s so much fun. Don’t you agree?

I couldn’t agree more. What’s life like for you today?  I’m in a retirement home. It’s very large. We have various dinner tables. The French-speaking table, the German-speaking table, the vegetarian table, which is the biggest, and we have a gay table. We meet once a month, and we’ve had as many as 16 people. There are more than 16 gay women and men here, but not all of them are ready to make the announcement and sit at our table. But I think that table was a nice little breakthrough at the end of my life.

So basically, at 90 years old, you’re still organizing, but in a retirement community.  Absolutely. Barbara and I always dreamed that someday there would be a gay retirement community. Well this place is by no means all gay, but we’re working on it.

What’s a typical day like for you?  I like to get up early. I have breakfast at eight. Then I get some medications. Then I go to Sit And Fight, where we exercise while we sit. Then I have lunch. Today was liverwurst, my favorite. Then after that, I make some phone calls, and this is one of them. And then I take a nap from two to four. Then I get up and watch television. I have to watch a lot of TV news. I’m keenly interested in politics and what’s going to happen in our presidential election, what’s going to happen to our gay candidate, Mayor Pete. I have dinner. Sometimes I go to happy hour, an hour of wine and cheese. Then I finish dinner, and then I get the news on again.

Who is your favorite newscaster?  I like the PBS NewsHour, then I switch over to Chris Matthews. I enjoy him. Sometimes I watch Rachel Maddow. Aside from news, I also like to watch gay movies if they turn up, also Masterpiece Theater.

What books are you reading right now?  “We Are Everywhere.” It has wonderful pictures, and I think it’s a wonderful contribution to the movement. 

You and I come from a time when no politician would even speak to us. We now have mayors, governors, senators, even a presidential candidate working with us. Does that change surprise you?  No, not really. I saw it start up slowly. I was working on writing and photographing a New York newspaper, it was called “Gay News.” They sent me on an assignment to talk a politician, one of the very first willing to be interviewed, and I didn’t know what to ask him. I was tongue tied, and sort of intimidated, but I quickly got with the program. I went to the village independent democrats, Bella Abzug was there, and Mayor Koch was there, and I stood up and asked ‘What are you going to do about the problems of gay people in NYC?’ and got into it with them.

A lot of people don’t know Bella Abzug introduced the first nondiscrimination legislation in congress in 1974.  Well I know they were enlightened early on, and I like to think I started some of that.

You certainly did. As far as we’ve come all these years, what is the biggest surprise to you of our movement?  The legalization of gay marriage, which I think is fabulous, just fabulous. I was once asked, “What was the most important turn of events in the gay movement?” and I said gay marriage. Others say different things. Some say the first picket lines, some say going after the federal government to legalize civil rights legislation. Stonewall was very important.

If you could have one wish for the upcoming year, what would you want?  Oh, gosh, what a question. I would like to see the Democrats come into power in the next administration. I’d like to see more gay candidates elected. Mayor Pete is running and doing very well. I don’t know if he can make it. We have a nice mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot. I certainly admire her for taking on the problems in Chicago. I’d like to see another breakthrough in San Francisco in terms of politicians running things.

This is your 90th birthday. When we get to your 100th birthday in 10 years, what do you expect to have been accomplished?  I don’t even think that far ahead. At 90, you think about tomorrow. I just hope that we have good work behind us on climate change. As for gay issues, we should have a firm legalization of civil rights.

Anything else you want to say to folks reading?  Join the movement. It can be frustrating and irritating, and it can be fun. Gay rights isn’t all marching in parades. There’s a lot of drudgery behind the scenes. A lot of trying to draft various articles and statements, a lot of calling on politicians. Sometimes it is hard work. Trying to roll back prejudice and discrimination is a job, but I still say, you can have a lot of fun if you do it.