Follow the lives of activists Kay Tobin Lahusen and Barbara Gittings and explore images from the early days of the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
“You have come to the source.”
That’s what she told me. In March 2018, I sat down with LGTBQ rights pioneer, Kay Tobin Lahusen, in what I now consider to be a life-changing experience.
The year prior, I worked on a multimedia installation at Symphony Space for NYC’s very own LGBTQ symphonic band, The Lesbian and Gay Big Apple Corps. Their spring concert focused on queer history and community stories, as told by our LGBTQ elders. My preparation for the installation took me to various archives and libraries in search for our community’s history. It also brought me to the founding members of the gay rights liberation movement. During that search, I came to truly understand the extreme importance of documenting LGBTQ rights.
It was a year-long journey that led me to our first face-to-face visit. I later began working on a film project about her life partner, Barbara Gittings. Barbara is recognized as the mother of the gay rights movement in the United States. Together, they were known as the Barbara and Kay Team in the fight for LGBTQ equality.
Kay herself is considered the first out photojournalist. With her camera, she documented the majority of the pre-Stonewall era (and beyond) in the United States. Through her documentary work and journalism, and her and Barbara’s sense for archiving and preservation, I was not only able to learn my queer history, but my story as a gay woman and visual storyteller and the importance of documenting LGBTQ+ rights.
Images, film, video, and audio capture who we are. They are living and breathing moments. They communicate a society’s struggles, battles, losses, and victories. What’s more, they share our stories and continue to reveal themselves to future generations. Each visual or sound byte isn’t just a memory to appreciate. It is also a human being to treasure and a lesson to learn.
Growing up I didn’t see LGBTQ+ people reflected in the mainstream media or displayed in my history books. Visibility is extremely important. You can’t be your best self when you can’t see yourself represented in the world with integrity.
Kay said, “Someone had to get out there and show their face, proclaim things and be aggressive.”
In 1958 Barbara Gittings showed her face and used her real name when others could not take that risk. Fearless, Gittings stepped out into the public arena and took a stand, and Kay documented it all through the lens of her camera. Their life’s work of activism and documenting LGBTQ rights would touch so many people, and influence changes that we still benefit from today. Along with other brave pioneers, they laid the groundwork that would give rise to the Stonewall rebellion. Their work directly affects the LGBTQ rights efforts of the present day.
Decades later, we have an amazing collection of content to look back on. Each still and moving image is a gift, captured by courageous photographers and filmmakers. These mediums make visible what was invisible. I can see my face because Barbara showed hers, and Kay captured it. She preserved the source of a movement. This lets me, and other generations of young people, know that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Because they did, we can.
That’s why I love documentary filmmaking and remain passionate about visual storytelling and making it accessible to others. It pushes back against erasure and celebrates marginalized communities and people whose stories haven’t been told. It allows us to be a part of another person’s truth and grow through their incomparable contributions and legacy.
“This is all real, what you see. Every image, every detail, everything is real. Memories are gone but the images are here and they are real…right there in front of your eyes.” Jonas Mekas, avant-garde filmmaker
The photos of Kay Tobin Lahusen and Diana Davies are on exhibit at the New York Public Library’ s Love & Resistance Stonewall 50 until July 14, 2019.
All images unless otherwise noted are courtesy of Kay Tobin Lahusen, via NYPL Digital Collections.
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