Pioneer LGBTQ+ Historian against Conversion Therapy Dies

Kay Lahusen, who played a key role in persuading the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders and also in documenting the historical movement against conversion therapy, died May 26 at age 91.

Photo from Cured by Kay Lahusen
Kay Lahusen was the photographer for key moments in LGBTQ history, including efforts to destigmatize homosexuality and stop conversion therapy.

Lahusen and her partner of 46 years, Barbara Gittings, were activists in the early LGBTQ+ rights movement. As the first openly LGBTQ+ photojournalist, Lahusen captured the movement’s early activism on film, co-wrote a book about the early movement under a pseudonym, and provided the photography for Barbara Gittings: Gay Pioneer. Gittings was one of the nation’s most prominent lesbian activists.

Obituary by the New York Times

Lahusen played a key role in founding the Gay Activists Alliance in 1970. In the ensuing years, she and Gittings worked with other gay activists and mental health advocates to persuade the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, citing the absence of any evidence that being gay was incompatible with mental health and the harm caused by conversion therapists.

That campaign and her photographic archive made Lahusen an icon of LGBTQ+ history.

Because of her historic role, she is featured in Cured, a documentary about the campaign to depathologize homosexuality that is now winning awards at film festivals around the world. Lahusen’s extensive archival record, particularly as Gittings effectively articulated the campaign’s professional and ethical mandate, was invaluable in telling the story. “We could not expect our civil rights,” Lahusen reflected, “as long as we were burdened with the sickness label.”

Gittings died in 2007. In 2019, the Philadelphia Gay News marked Lahusen’s 90th birthday with an interview with her.

Q: What LGBT people in history do you admire?

A: 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.

Q: So visibility is one of the hallmarks of your life? 

A: 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?

Gay journalist Mark Segal knew Lahusen for 50 years. He looked back fondly upon her life, writing:

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, D.C. 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.

According to The Advocate, Lahusen’s remains will be interred in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, alongside Gittings, in a bench designed to express their love for each other and their dedication to showing that “Gay is Good.” 

Rest in power, Kay.

Born Perfect is a survivor-led program created by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) in 2014 to end conversion therapy by passing laws across the country that protect LGBTQ children and young people, fighting in courtrooms to ensure their safety, and raising awareness about the serious harms caused by these dangerous practices.

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