These Philadelphia women brought visibility, vision to a rising LGBT rights movement

Ian Bush
June 12, 2019 - 7:37 am
Kay Tobin-Lahusen holds a photograph she took of her partner and fellow activist Barbara Gittings.

Ian Bush/KYW Newsradio

Categories: 

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — In the 1960s, as gays and lesbians sought to build community, a Philadelphia-area couple put their multimedia talents behind a "social network" of sorts. The women became important figures in what would become the LGBT rights movement.

Long before Internet forums and apps made it so easy to connect with like-minded people, there were the Daughters of Bilitis — quiet, small-group gatherings of lesbians, like Kay Tobin-Lahusen.

"I couldn't believe what had happened to me," Lahusen said. "Suddenly I was in the midst of a meeting of other gay women."

Related:

An unlikely source tipped her off to the DoB: a psychiatrist who claimed to "cure" people who were gay.

"Well, I didn't want to be cured, but I did want to find others," she said.

She did make friends, first in meetings in a dingy office space in New York rented by the Mattachine Society — a similar group for gay men — and then in other organized gatherings

Lahusen met Barbara Gittings — who would become her partner, in life and in activism — at a DoB picnic in Rhode Island.

"We were trying to force people to think critically about the major issues in the movement," Lahusen said.

Turning a lens on the movement

Kay Tobin-Lahusen is shown in front of a collection of her images from the cover of The Ladder.
Wikipedia Commons, public domain

Their platform was The Ladder, an early lesbian publication. From their home in Philadelphia, Gittings edited the magazine. Lahusen used her camera to tell stories.

"What we really needed was to have pictures of real live lesbians — because sometimes even gay women had a crazy idea of what other lesbians were like," Lahusen said.

Not everyone wanted to be in focus.

"People were afraid to be photographed. They thought, 'Oh, what if I'm on the cover of my local newspaper? And my parents see it?'"

Yet her images show that, over the years, more and more marchers were drawn to the annual Reminder Days demonstrations outside of Independence Hall. Gays and lesbians from New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., picketed for fair and equal treatment every July 4 from 1965, when about 40 people participated, to 1969, when the number had reached 125.

"The gay people who happened to be tourists that day — one said, 'It's as if a weight dropped off of myself today,'" Lahusen said, remembering one of those demonstrations.

Their growing visibility was critical to the cause but also put them at risk.

Standing up to Frank Frizzo

In the 1960s, any gathering of gays was at risk of a crackdown by cops. After all, as Lahusen's friend Carole Smith recalls, "Well, it was in the days of the illustrious Frank Rizzo."

But that police captain who'd become commissioner and then mayor was far from the only brutish force: consider the arrests made at a meeting of men in Radnor, Delaware County, in 1960 — the first time in the country a gay or lesbian political group was raided.

Back in the city, "police often raided lesbian bars," said Smith.

Like Rusty's, at Walnut and Quince streets, where Smith recalls cops shaking down bar owners and patrons.

"If they weren't paid off enough money by the bar owner, they would arrest people," Smith said. "You had to have three items of women's clothing on to prove you were a woman, or they arrested you."

A dozen women were handcuffed one March night in 1968. Another night, Barbara Gittings was in Rusty's when officers swarmed the place yet again. Lahusen says officers demanded identification.

"And she went in her purse, and she took out her ACLU membership card and put it down. Well, needless to say, there were no arrests that night," Lahusen said.

It was an act of defiance that reflected what was stirring in advance of the uprising at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, in New York City — activism sparked by mounting injustices.

But supportive sentiments were not universal.

A shift in focus

"In the Philadelphia activism area, some of us were a little horrified," said Marj McCann, Smith's partner, "because we'd been trying so hard to be presentable and assimilate. And here were these people rioting, for crying out loud. They were going to give us all a bad name."

At Philadelphia's annual Reminders, the last of which happened just days after Stonewall, a gender-conforming dress code was enforced: men in ties and trousers, women in dresses. The goal was to appear respectable, "normal." But even in 1969, some of the women wore pants.

The mood among activists was shifting away from respectability toward more aggressive tactics, but it would take years, McCann says, for some in the community to come around.

"Stonewall didn't change anything that minute or that day or that week," she said. "It was part of an evolution, and it was one of those high points in the evolution, but wasn't a revolution. It was gradually changing minds."

LGBT pioneers Carole Smith and Marj McCann
Ian Bush/KYW Newsradio

Gittings, meanwhile, had more crusades — getting gay and lesbian literature in libraries as a leader in the American Library Association and, with Lahusen and others, challenging the American Psychiatric Association's prevailing views on sexual orientation.

"We turned up at a lot of their conferences, their annual meetings, and we would have a booth — 'Gay, proud and healthy: the homosexual community speaks.' And we were constantly bombarding them with our point of view and that we were the experts on homosexuality."

Homosexuality was deleted from the list of mental disorders in 1973.

Gittings died in 2007. Philadelphia named the section of Locust Street at 13th Street Barbara Gittings Way, after the "mother of the LGBT civil rights movement."

Lahusen still lives in Kennett Square, surrounded by her photographs, a witness to the history she helped fashion.

"It's great being in a social change movement, particularly if it succeeds," she said. "It was a great ride."

___

Fifty years after the uprising at Stonewall that marked a turning point in the fight for equality, KYW Newsradio examines the past, present, and future of the LGBTQ rights movement through voices from the Philadelphia region in the series "Stonewall Uprising 50th Anniversary."