A tribute to Kay Lahusen

Kay Lahusen and Mark Segal

While it was somewhere in my thoughts, I somehow never thought it would really ever happen. After all, the Kay I knew was a force of nature. She was so humble that she often downplayed her major contributions to our community. Her total dedication and love for her wife, Barbara Gittings is the kind of relationship we all aspire to. She was, as I’ve said on numerous occasions, the LGBT community’s first photojournalist. 

Our friendship goes back to 1969 or 70. In those early days we most often were on different sides of the issues. At first, Kay thought my zaps of live network television were a little too disruptive and radical. It took until the 25th anniversary of Stonewall for me to fully realize Kay’s and Barbara’s contributions. When I saw them sitting on a bench alone, holding stuffed dinosaurs during that anniversary party, I asked them why they were holding them. They said they “felt like dinosaurs.” That was 27 years ago. After that, we began to often meet or talk on the phone about our shared history.

After Barbara’s death in 2007, Kay and I became even closer, though our get-togethers were mostly on the phone. When she called or I called her at the sound of her voice I’d say “my favorite LGBT historic figure,” and we’d reminisce about our past. 

On a birthday a few years ago, she gave me my own stuffed dinosaur and a card that said “you’re now old enough to be part of the dinosaur club.”

Kay was happy to be at her retirement home, and in recent years she rarely left. I tried to get her to an event at the White House with president Obama, who she adored. No matter what I offered she wouldn’t budge. And true to our fashion we’d argued over that with great humor since we both knew she wouldn’t go. On another occasion I went to our mutual friend Frank Kameny’s memorial; he lay in state in Washington DC. When I got home she called to see how it went. I told her it was too formal and quiet.  She asked what I did. When I told her that I approached the coffin and argued with Frank, she laughed and said thank you. That is something that only we would appreciate. It is that relationship and understanding of our mutual histories that I’ll miss. 

She understood that history, She was one of the major forces in getting me to donate my historical records to the Smithsonian. She would not give up until I made that decision, and she helped me realize the importance of preserving as much of our history as we can.

We lost a major figure in LGBT history this week. Personally, I’ll miss our rather animated discussions, I’ll miss her stubbornness, and I’ll miss her friendship that went back 52 incredible years.  Whenever I think of Kay, I’ll smile.