Kay Lahusen (1930-2021), Interviewed January 14, 1993

Kay Lahusen, 2012

Kay Lahusen, photographed in October 2012. From "The Woman Behind the Lens." 3 October 2012, www.baywindow.com.

by Marc Stein. Copyright © Marc Stein 2009. All rights reserved. 


I interviewed Kay Lahusen, who mostly used the name Kay "Tobin" in the gay and lesbian movement, at her home in West Philadelphia in September 1993. Lahusen had earlier participated in my interview with her long-time partner Barbara Gittings (link), but Gittings was not present for this interview. I wanted to interview both of them because they were well known, locally and nationally, as gay and lesbian movement leaders who had been active since the 1950s and 1960s. Before interviewing them I had heard Gittings speak at public events in Philadelphia and I think I had met them at the Lesbian and Gay Library/Archives of Philadelphia, which was located in the William Way Community Center. Before conducting this interview, I transcribed a public presentation on local gay and lesbian history that Gittings and Ada Bello had done in 1983 and a videotaped interview that Tommi Avicolli Mecca had done with Gittings in 1984; I hope to make transcripts of these available in the future. I also read many previously published interviews with Gittings and a few with Lahusen, some of which are referenced below.

Because there were previously published interviews with Lahusen, I skipped some of the usual questions that I tended to ask in my oral history interviews. Because of this, I recommend that readers consult other interviews with Lahusen and use those interviews in combination with mine.

In November 2012 I spoke with Lahusen by telephone and confirmed her willingness to have me share this interview online.

In the original 1993 interview Lahusen provided me with the following biographical information:

Date of Birth: 5 January 1930

Place of Birth: Cincinnati, Ohio

Place of Mother's Birth: Unknown

Mother's Occupation: Housewife

Place of Father's Birth: Cincinnati, Ohio

Father's Occupation: Automobile Mechanic, Inventor

Race/Ethnicity: White

Religious Background: Christian Scientist

Class Background: Middle Class

Residential History

1930-56: Cincinnati, Ohio

1956-61: Boston, Massachusetts

1961-67: Philadelphia (241 S. 21st St.)

1967-73: New York City and Philadelphia

1973-78: Philadelphia (4301 Spruce St.)

1978-Present: Philadelphia (4832 Osage St.)

For other interviews with Gittings and Lahusen, see Eric Marcus, Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990 (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 106-126; Kay Tobin and Randy Wicker, The Gay Crusaders (New York: Paperback Library, 1972), 205-224; Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History (New York: Crowell, 1976), 420-433; Tommi Avicolli, "Barbara Gittings," Advocate, 9 July 1981, 24-27; Troy Perry and Thomas L. P. Swicegood, Profiles in Gay and Lesbian Courage (New York: St. Martin's, 1991), 153-178; Vern L. Bullough, ed., Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context (Binghamton: Harrington Park, 2002); Paul D. Cain, Leading the Parade: Conversations with America's Most Influential Lesbians and Gay Men (Lanham: Scarecrow, 2002).

Interview Transcript

Marc Stein interview with Kay Lahusen, 29 September 1993. Transcribed by Abby Schrader and Marc Stein.

MS: I thought we could start by talking a little bit about your early years. I know you were born in Cincinnati and if you can just say a word about what it meant to grow up the way you grew up.

KL: Well I was always what was called a tomboy. And even though I wasn't physically strong or big, I did play football and I had a football helmet and I played soldiers and I played with little lead cars and building blocks and erector sets and things like that and wanted to be an architect.

MS: Is that right?

KL: And I rode horseback. I was very fearless. I got blue ribbons in horseback and riflery and archery and things like that. And I liked boxing at camp.

Kay Lahusen and Barbara Gittings, 1991

Kay Lahusen (R), with Barbara Gittings, her partner of 46 years. Photo: Robert Giard, Robert Giard Papers, Yale University Collection of American Literature.

MS: Did this raise any eyebrows in your family?

KL: Yes. I think they were very concerned that I was this way, but they were pretty forbearing. They told me I could do whatever I wanted to do. They were pretty good. And for two minutes I showed evidence of interest in dolls and they were encouraged. They went out and bought me a lot of dolls. But that didn't last, didn't take. But I found that as I got into my early teens, I got away from going to cowboy movies on Saturday and I went to the love stories of the day, the old Bette Davis movies and Cary Grant and things like that. And I started developing terrific crushes on other girls in school and on women movie stars like Katherine Hepburn. And when I was I guess a freshman in high school, I had a terrific crush on a senior in high school. And if I had been smart enough, I might have known where I was heading. But of course it was all very amorphous and I wasn't. I guess I thought I would go through this and out the other end and come to love men or something. Anyway, I didn't. And I had a terrific crush on a couple of my teachers, one in particular, an English teacher. So of course I decided I wanted to be an English teacher. And so in college I had an English major and my degree is in education, even though I had a liberal arts course going along with it. I prepared to teach English in high school, but when I got to my student teaching, I didn't like it. So that was that. I have one of those useless English degrees.

MS: Now you were born in 1930, you said?

KL: Yes.

MS: So the high school years were in the late forties.

KL: Yeah.

MS: And the college years were as the forties turned into the fifties, is that right?

KL: Mmhmm.

MS: And the first relationship that you had?

KL: Yeah. Well it was with someone that I met in high school. And it developed the summer after we graduated from high school. And it gradually became physical. And I tried to kid myself for awhile that this was just the world's greatest friendship. And I remember reading Plato and all of that stuff. After a year or so, I finally faced the fact that it wasn't just the world's greatest friendship, that there was a hell of a lot of sexual desire and activity involved and that there was a name for this. And it was homosexual. And so I had to come to grips with that label.

MS: How did you come in contact with that word or with that concept?

KL: Oh I don't know.

MS: You don't recall now?

KL: I can't remember where I first encountered that.

MS: Did you know gay people as a child?

KL: Oh no!

MS: Adults? Looking back later?

KL: Looking back later, I went to a private girls' school and I think most of the teachers were gay.

MS: Really?

KL: Yes.

MS: Why do you think they were?

KL: They were in pairs. And when the gym teacher's significant other died, it was the end of the world to her. And everybody sort of recognized that these were very meaningful relationships between these women. But we certainly didn't have the word gay and we would never have applied the word homosexual.

MS: Did you know any gay men when you were growing up, in the same way, looking back now?

KL: Possibly the ballet teacher, Mr. Lefebvre, who was wonderful. I loved him. I got very interested in ballet. Took me away from football. Yeah, he was lots of fun. He fled Nazi occupation in France and came over and got a job where he could, which was in a private girls' school teaching ballet. And then I was aware of a guy who used to attend the summer opera at the Cincinnati Zoo in the summer evenings. And he was a transvestite. And I remember he frightened me totally. I mean he wasn't a bizarre transvestite. It wasn't that he was overdrawn and ugly. No, he was truer than that. He was a dandy transvestite who wore makeup and beautiful men's clothes and he would wear sort of an ascot type tie with a diamond stickpin in it. And he was such an other in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was like he was from Mars. And just to look in his face and see his face all made up, it frightened me to pieces. There was something so fascinating about this guy and yet I was terrified of him. And that was my first real sense that I had seen a gay man.

MS: Were there any frightening lesbians that you encountered?

KL: No, no.

MS: Nothing like that?

KL: No.

MS: So then this relationship lasted through college, right?

KL: Yes. Yes. But I started to say that when I put the label on myself, it was really frightening because I was all alone. My then lover didn't want to be this way and was pushing the whole thing away. In fact, we couldn't even say the word homosexual to one another. And I couldn't really talk to her about it because she was psychologically running as far as she could away from it, even while we were carrying on in bed. And also she was telling me it wasn't right. It wasn't morally right. And so, after a year or so, I put the label on and I really just had a total breakdown. I was on the streetcar, going to a summer class, and I simply had to turn around and go back home and go to bed. And it was as if hammers were pounding on my head. And I just had to resolve it within myself, whether or not I was this way and whether I could live with it, even though my lover couldn't seem to accept it. In any case, after about a week or ten days, two weeks at the most, of wrestling with this whole matter internally, I finally just decided that I was right and society was wrong and that there just couldn't be anything wrong with what I felt and what I was doing to express that. And that even if my lover didn't agree, I would still stand against her and against the world in terms of my attitude toward this orientation. And then I immediately got well and got out of bed and resumed my life. I mean it wasn't that simple, but over the years that we remained together, it was a tension between us.

MS: Do you remember what sense you had about why you were this way?

KL: Oh I didn't ask.

MS: You didn't ask yourself that?

KL: No. I was very happy being this way. No, I never did torture myself over the whys. No. I was a fairly intellectual kid. I read a lot and I was reading History of Philosophy by Will Durant. I was reading a lot. And I was reading Ruth Benedict's anthropological works. And I just decided that this was an ignorant culture‑bound view and it was my misfortune to be in Cincinnati, Ohio, with all these people around me who had what I considered to be benighted attitudes.

MS: Did you encounter those attitudes in direct ways when you were in high school and college?

KL: I really don't remember any direct expressions of homophobic opinions, but generally you just knew it was in the air that this was something awful and terrible.

Cover, Voyage from Lesbos

Cover, Robert Robertiello, Voyage From Lesbos (1959).

MS: Now after college you went to Boston, is that right?

KL: No, not after college. I graduated in '52 from college.

MS: I see.

KL: Yeah. And then I lived with my then-lover for a couple of years after college. And then, true to form, since she had always told me she wanted to be married and have a family, she did leave me and she did marry and I assume she had a family. I don't know. I 'm not in touch with her.

MS: That must have been devastating.

KL: Well yes, but I think what we have to understand is that there are some people who, even though they may have gay proclivities, they may be primarily gay, partly gay, whatever, they nonetheless are just not cut out psychologically to go against the crowd. They want to be in the pack. And they may want to be the leader of the pack. She always wanted to be the leader of the pack. She was a pillar of the community type. I'm sure she's probably some sort of very well‑thought of poobah in some context today, but always within an acceptable mainstream kind of context. She was not cut out to be a maverick and to go against the grain and to go a difficult path in that sense.

MS: And why do you think you were?

KL: I don't think there's any explanation for it.

MS: Nothing in your, say, family background or education? Do you think it was more just who you were?

KL: I can't explain it. It's just a matter of one's stripe. I mean, as I said, there are some people who, even though they are gay, are not happy being gay, because it's very hard for them to go against all the folkways and mores that are around them, all the expectations.

MS: Right.

KL: And others just have it in them to trod a difficult path, a separate path, a minority path, and to stand up against the crowd and its prejudices.

MS: Did you know any other lesbians or gay men in the years that you were together with your lover?

KL: No.

MS: Not a one?

KL: No. No. I once saw two women holding hands on a bus and I was horrified. And I thought, "Gee, don't they know better than to do that in public. They are only going to have people look down on them and invite ridicule, or at least mental ridicule." And I squirmed for them really.

MS: I know in the interview that Eric Marcus did with you that you mentioned that they were both a butch‑fem couple and an interracial couple.

KL: Yes that's true. They were flying in the face of society in those years, that's for sure. They were thereafter discovered in bed together by the house mother and she tried to break it up, with the help of my then lover, who was enlisted to help with these poor women.

MS: So did you leave Cincinnati right after your relationship ended?

KL: Very soon after, yes.

MS: Was it because of the relationship ending? Did you want to leave?

KL: Yes. Most people who grew up in Cincinnati either were happy there and blended in or, if they weren't happy there and couldn't blend in, they got up and out and they went to a big city somewhere. But I didn't really have any sense of seeking gay people because I didn't really realize they were clustered in large cities. I thought there might be a few lesbians in Paris or something.

MS: So you never encountered a gay bar in Cincinnati or a novel?

KL: No. I had some dim awareness that there might be some sleazy bars where some very obvious butch-fem types congregated or drag queens congregated. But it was almost something at the edge of my consciousness. I barely realized it. I guess I came to realize it just a tad more when I was in Boston. But I didn't see myself fitting into those contexts. I mean I didn't even drink, let alone want to go to a bar. That was lowlife, as I would have viewed it then. It just isn't anything that I saw myself doing. And I didn't think I'd meet anyone there that I would care for.

MS: So that pretty much stayed the same all the years that you were in Boston? I know you were working for the Christian Science Monitor.

KL: Yeah.

MS: Again no encounter with gay bars? Did you meet gay or lesbian people there, when you were in Boston?

KL: No, not at all. I learned, after I left, that there were other gay people working at the Monitor. But little did I know at the time.

MS: So no relationships either?

KL: No, no, not at all. I was sort of aware that there might be some gay people around the Beacon Hill area and there might be a bar where there were some people. But again, I didn't see myself as fitting into those places and even if I had had the courage to go in them, I didn't think I would really meet anyone that I would really care for. And so it just wasn't anything that I ever pursued.

MS: Had you encountered The Well of Loneliness by this point?

KL: No. The most that I encountered was that since I had to read the newspapers every day and I did see the New York papers, I was aware that every now and then there was a story in the newspapers about security risks being gay. A couple of British spies who were homosexual were caught or whatever it was. And so that's all there was in print in those days, stuff about spies and security risks and just barely mentioned. I mean McCarthy for a while mentioned gays in passing, but didn't say a whole lot. He was mostly after communists.

MS: So what happened? What changed? At some point you got hooked up with the gay movement.

KL: And the other connection where you saw it in print was that some psychiatrist would talk about sickness.

MS: Right, right.

KL: So anyway I finally decided, "What am I doing here? I'm researching every subject in the world for all these writers and editors except the thing that interests me the most. Why the hell don't I research what interests me the most?" So I went to the guide to periodicals and I looked up homosexuality and found that some shrink had written a book. Richard Robertiello had written a book called Voyage from Lesbos, where he claimed to have cured three lesbians. The book review was in TIME magazine, I think. So I found my way to that book review and then I found him in New York City and I made an appointment to go and see him. And I drove down from Boston and I went to see him. You probably have all this from Eric Marcus, right?

MS: Yeah. You went and then he showed you a copy of The Ladder.

KL: And I told him, "I don't want to be cured, but I want to find out where there are others." And he said, "Oh that's easy." And so he handed me this copy of The Ladder, which was one of the really early issues. And said, "Well there's a chapter here in New York." And he said, "In fact, they have an office here." And I pictured this big office, with all these people working. And of course when I got there, it was like six by eight or something.

MS: And so you came down to a meeting from Boston?

KL: Yeah, Barbara wasn't there. She was on vacation in California, but I did go. And of course, I thought there'd be a lot of people, and I was really terrified. I was sweating and flushed. I was so uptight. And it turned out I think there were about three or four of us. Because in those days, there were like 200 people in the movement nationwide. Anyway, there was just this tiny little handful in this tiny little dingy office that DOB shared with the New York Mattachine Society.

MS: 1961, this was? Is that right?

KL: '60, '61, I believe.

MS: And you got hooked in.

KL: And yeah, I got hooked in.

MS: And how did things progress from there? You were living in Boston?

KL: Yeah. I met Barbara shortly thereafter. And I thought it would take a long, long time for me to find anyone, but I did meet her in short order. I guess we travelled back and forth between Philadelphia and Boston for the better part of a year. And then she proposed I come live with her in Philadelphia. I was very tired of Boston winters by then. And she said, "Philadelphia is just like Boston, only warmer."

MS: I'm not sure that's true.

KL: Right, I know. So anyway she convinced me.

MS: Do you think you partly went to that meeting to find a partner, as opposed to, say, get involved with the movement?

KL: Oh, of course. My whole thought was that I'd kill two birds with one stone. First of all, I would help them in the movement and help to combat the prejudice and discrimination. And hope to find someone.

MS: And you did.

KL: Yes.

Drum June 1965

Drum, June 1965.

MS: So you moved to Philadelphia in what year?


KL: '61 or so. It's a blur.

MS: O.K.

KL: Barbara will remember better.

MS: O.K. And were you going regularly, during this time, to the DOB New York meetings when you were still in Boston?

KL: Yes. Well there weren't that many. But I guess I did. Yes I did. I went down. Barbara would come up from Philadelphia.

MS: And she was the president of the chapter? Is that right?

KL: Yeah, right.

MS: And do you remember any of the other women involved at that point?

KL: Just vaguely.

MS: Do you remember their names?

KL: There was Gus, who was very butch and smoked a pipe and was constantly in therapy, and her lover, who died of cancer, and another woman who was very butch named Mike, who tried to conform to the DOB expectations. And so when DOB held its convention in New York, she put on a skirt.

MS: Did you meet Joan Fraser during that year?

KL: Yeah.

MS: She was part of the chapter and coming up from Philadelphia as well.

KL: I don't remember that. I do not remember her really very much at all. I remember her going to the ECHO conferences thereafter.

MS: O.K. So that was a little bit later.

KL: Yeah, right.

MS: So you were periodically going to the DOB‑New York meetings. Barbara was the head of DOB‑New York and then you moved to Philadelphia. And you and Barbara lived in Center City, right?

KL: Mmhmm.

MS: And what was that like? Did you begin to encounter other lesbians and gay men outside of the movement?

KL: Oh well, of course, sure. I mean even in DOB‑New York, we had what we called cover dish suppers, to which men were invited. I think they were fundraisers. I'm not sure. I mean they were tiny. It was probably 30 people at the most. And we used to go to the New York Mattachine meetings. And those were open meetings where there would be a speaker for the evening. And so I met the Mattachine guys.

MS: Were they open to having lesbians there?

KL: Of course.

MS: Yes?

KL: Oh yes. The more the merrier. There was no problem.

MS: Were there many lesbians there? Or were you more the exception?

KL: Probably we were more the exception, because it was usually some psychologist or psychiatrist telling us about their theories. Frequently a closeted gay psychologist talking about homosexuality among the birds and the bees and how, by implication, it really is natural.

MS: Were there any female speakers or were they all male? Do you recall?

KL: I don't recall any female speakers in New York. I think there must have been in Chicago. There was a very wonderful woman lawyer out there who was an activist: Pearl Hart. And she was affiliated with Mattachine of Chicago. But I don't remember any women speakers in New York.

MS: O.K.

KL: I think it was sort of a daring thing to be a speaker at the Mattachine Society.

MS: Sure.

KL: I mean there weren't that many people who would go out on a limb. And statistically there were just more men available who might do that. And also there were meetings about law reform and reform of the sodomy laws and women didn't really think of those laws as much applying to them. So again I think most of the women really were more geared to coffee klatch type things and covered dish suppers rather than worrying about law reform and trying to turn back the sickness theory.

MS: Back to Philadelphia for a second. You were going say a little bit about Center City or living in the middle of Philadelphia. You said you did meet other people in Philadelphia?

KL: Oh yeah. We had a guy who helped us print the newsletter. He did a letterhead for us. He was gay and had a little printing press in his basement.

MS: Someone in Philadelphia? You mean the DOB New York Newsletter?

KL: Yes, Ed Vasquez, who has since moved to Southern California.

MS: Vasquez?

KL: And I think he's still in the printing business. And I think he's done a lot of AIDS work.

MS: Did you have gay neighbors?

KL: No, I don't remember anybody living near us, except one woman who lived briefly down the street in a little basement apartment. We lived near Rittenhouse Square and I knew there was a lot of cruising that the guys did late at night in Rittenhouse Square.

MS: Is that right? Can you tell me some of your memories of Rittenhouse Square in the sixties?

KL: It was very safe, very clean and civilized. We didn't think a thing about going up there at midnight or even later, walking around.

MS: Would you walk around at night, while the gay men were out?

KL: All the time. Yes, it was very safe. These guys were out there cruising in a very circumspect way.

MS: Not during the day, though, you're saying?

KL: Oh maybe they were there during the day. I suppose they were. But it was a very mixed population. The whole feeling was different in the city. You didn't worry about going out at night. I remember meeting Clark Polak in the park at night. I met him in the day in the park. And the guys dressed in very nice, clean, well‑pressed sports clothes in those years. And then, of course, a little later, the hippie phenomenon hit and everybody was busy dressing down and looking very disheveled.

MS: Right.

KL: But in the sixties, everybody was sort of spic and span and neat.

MS: Were there as many lesbians as gay men in Rittenhouse Square?

KL: No.

MS: Why do you think that was?

KL: Because lesbians aren't given to cruising in the park!

MS: Or even gathering to socialize in the park?

KL: No, I think the most gathering that went on was at the one gay bar for lesbians.

MS: What was that called?

KL: It was called Rusty's.

MS: Did you ever go there?

KL: Maybe once or twice at the most. Again, Barbara and I are not bar people. And we didn't really much care about drinking. And we were all engrossed in our movement work. And we knew a lot of people from the movement. We didn't need to go meet people. We didn't need to try to find friends to have dinner with and that kind of thing. We didn't have any money, so we never went out to dinner anyway.

MS: Were you aware of the existence of the first Mattachine Society in Philadelphia? It would have been starting just as you moved to Philadelphia.

KL: Right.

MS: You were aware of it?

KL: Yes.

MS: And did you ever go to their meetings?

KL: I think I might have gone to one, one or two at the most.

MS: You weren't at the raid that took place in Radnor?

KL: No. A friend of ours was there.

MS: Who's that?

KL: It was his house. Jack Adair.

MS: Oh yes, right. I interviewed Jack.

KL: No, I wasn't at that.

MS: Did you know the president, Mabel Polikoff? Did you know her?

KL: Yes.

MS: Can you tell me anything about her?

KL: Not really. I think she had blonde hair sort of piled on top of her head. I think she sort of wore business suits, but had blonde hair. She certainly wasn't what you'd think of as stereotypical as a lesbian. Again, I think she was one of those who preferred a mixed group, with some sense of doing something out in the world. And as some of us used to say, there's social service, which essentially tends to the social and psychological needs of gay people, giving them a little support group and a nice cozy atmosphere and a covered dish or whatever in somebody 's home, a nice alternative to the bars, helping people feel better about themselves. And then there's activism that looks out at the larger society and tries to make an impact and tries to make a change. And I was always more interested in the activism. And I think people like Mae Polakoff were more interested in activism. And the same, I think, with Marge McCann.

MS: You don't, though, recall getting active locally in the early sixties?

KL: No, because we had our hands full with New York and trying to start up a chapter there.

MS: Maybe you felt more comfortable being active in New York out of some kind of fear of being visible in Philadelphia, where you were living?

KL: No, no, not at all. It wasn't that way at all. It was that Philadelphia was quieter. The activism was in the bigger city, in New York and then in Washington. There was no activism here. There was nothing to do. It wasn't as if I backed away from a lot that was going on in City Hall or in the City Council. It wasn't like that. There was nothing.

MS: O.K.

Kay Lahusen, Realtor Photo

Kay Lahusen, about 1983. Photo: Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen Gay History Papers and Photographs, New York Public Library.

KL: There was Clark Polak trying to get together legal briefs in the courts to go against the sodomy law. It was this kind of activism here. But New York was where the action was and then later Washington.

MS: Can we talk a little bit about Clark Polak?

KL: Yeah, but as soon as activism started here, locally in Philadelphia, we got involved.

MS: That was in the late sixties?

KL: Yeah.

MS: Yeah, well we should come back to that. Clark Polak?

KL: I know. All of you historians are fascinated with Clark Polak. We have another one on our necks who wants to know everything about Clark Polak.

MS: Is that right?

KL: It seems once you're a mystery figure, the historians just get so tantalized.

MS: May I ask? Who is that who's working on him?

KL: I have his letter in the other room on the dining room table. I forget his name. Streitmatter, I think it is. Do you know him?

MS: No.

KL: In Washington. Well what do you want to know about Clark Polak?

MS: Well just your encounters with him. You said you used to see him in Rittenhouse Square.

KL: Well Clark owned a gay bookstore, which is to say he owned a sex bookstore. There was nothing at the time, except a few psychiatrists ' books on curing people, where they claimed to have perfected a cure. They were sure it was a disease to begin with. And ONE magazine. And then pornography, soft and hardcore, mostly hardcore. And there was nothing to support a bookstore. You couldn't have had a bookstore and paid the rent unless you were primarily a porn shop. So Clark, I think, had a porn shop. And then I believe he sold it to his lover, Jay. And he then went on to work in his Janus Society. I think Clark had been in the Mattachine and, out of that, came Janus. Is that the way that went?

MS: I don't know if he was actually involved in Mattachine. One person has said that to me. But I know that he became the head of Janus in late 1963. What did Janus do?

KL: Well maybe Mattachine changed its name to Janus.

MS: That's right.

KL: Or he broke away.

MS: No it changed its name.

KL: I think Clark was pretty much of a one man band. He wanted to have his own thing. I don't think he wanted to work with a group. He wanted to do his thing.

MS: What did the Janus Society do?

KL: Well he hired a very fine lawyer, locally, named Gil Cantor, Gilbert Cantor, who might have been in the ACLU context. I'm not sure. I looked for him in the phone book the other day and couldn't find anything.

MS: I think I've heard that he's died.

KL: He wrote a brief for Clark in a famous case. I guess sodomy. I forget what.

MS: The Boutilier case, right.

KL: Yes.

MS: Right, I've traced that. That was in the late sixties.

KL: Was that later? O.K.

MS: I know there was a series of public lectures: Albert Ellis, Samuel Hadden.

KL: Down here?

MS: In Philadelphia hotels that Janus was sponsoring.

KL: I forgot about that. That could be.

MS: Would you have gone to those? Do you recall? Isadore Rubin, who was the editor of Sexology magazine, gave one talk.

KL: I might have gone to Isadore Rubin.

MS: Kurt Konietzko gave one talk.

KL: I remember Konietzko giving a talk somewhere, but I forget where. I don't know exactly where these things were that I went to. I went to all the ECHO lectures and a lot of lectures in New York and it's all sort of blurred. But Clark had his own ideas about how the movement should best advance. First of all, he thought that we shouldn't be so squeamish about porn. And he wanted to devise a gay Playboy magazine, so he did DRUM. And it was soft porn, laced with a lot of news. And he engaged a clipping service. You probably know that. And so when we were working on The Ladder and we just depended on news clippings drifting into us, willy-nilly, he had an organized way of going about it. So we sort of envied that. But he had a lot of news items and a lot of serious stuff about law reform and the need for it. And he said we should go ahead and get money through a magazine like DRUM and then take it and channel it into serious challenges to the laws. And I don't think he was terribly keen on picketing. I think he sort of thought that wouldn't gain very much.

MS: There was one sit-in I know that he helped organize at Dewey's Restaurant. Does that ring a bell?

KL: That could be.

MS: And I know that Barbara has said, in many interviews, that he paid for some of the signs that were used at Independence Hall.

KL: Right, yeah, right, yeah. Well I think he thought that as long as we were going to do that, we should look good. He had that much of a care for how we came off in the public eye. But I don't think he much favored picketing as a tactic. I think he really thought the best thing to do was to mount challenges in the courts.

MS: That's right, as far I have been reading. How do you explain, it seems to me, that there was one side of him that was highly respectable, going through the courts, paying for professional signs, and then the other side that was highly non-respectable, with his bookstore and his DRUM magazine?

KL: Well I don't agree with your terms, first of all.

MS: O.K., tell me.

KL: I mean I agree with him that there's no reason why we shouldn't have sex magazines. There's no reason why, if Playboy mixes sex and hard news, we shouldn't mix them, too.

MS: I didn't mean to imply anything by that word. I meant more that when he wrote the briefs or when he had the briefs written, and I've read some of them, they downplayed the sexual aspect of gay life.

KL: Well Gil Cantor might have said this is the way to go.

MS: Right.

KL: And maybe Clark was persuaded. I don't really remember. All I know is I think he felt the movement was a bunch of fuzzy idealists, ready to get out and picket, and that it was all well and good, but that the real thing you needed was money. Money talks. Get a magazine out there that earns a lot of money and then put that money into more serious challenges. And so he pursued his own agenda and I can't fault him for that. In terms of these bookstores, it's all well and good to look down your nose at primarily a sex bookstore, but there could not have been anything else. There was not the literature to support anything else. So there was no way to have a storefront, even one little place where people could congregate or go to speak to another human being who was gay. The only way to support it was to have a fairly sleazy looking little bookstore with mostly sex stuff around and literature that was rather disheartening, because there were like maybe ten books and they were most of them by shrinks. That's the way it had to get started.

Kay Tobin Lahusen, Annual Reminder 1969

Lahusen picketing at the 1969 Annual Reminder, Independence Hall, Philadelphia. Photo: Nancy Tucker, Lesbian Herstory Archives, Brooklyn NY.

MS: Maybe if I could switch gears a little bit, I want to go back to the DOB. And there's a series of controversies that I know that erupted in DOB surrounding The Ladder, in ECHO, that I'm very interested in your thoughts about. And it seemed like you and Barbara were pretty central figure in some of these controversies. And some of the letters that I want to quote to you from may be a little difficult.

KL: I believe it.

MS: There's this one letter I have, in early 1963. It was written by a DOB‑New York member to the national officers.

KL: Who wrote it?

MS: Marion Glass.

KL: Oh yeah.

MS: And it was on the subject of who might be the coordinator for ECHO. And the letter reads, "While it would be desirable to have an on‑the‑spot Philadelphian as coordinator, some Philadelphians would probably find Miss Gittings unacceptable, even if available." And then you wrote back to her in early 1963.

KL: How did I know about this?

MS: You had gotten a copy of the letter. You or Barbara. And you explained that Barbara would not be available because of her commitment to The Ladder and because you were scheduling a foreign vacation and perhaps a move from Philadelphia. And then you say, "But one wonders why you have gone out of your way to raise her name as a possible candidate for the job, knowing she is completely tied down for the present with The Ladder? And one wonders why you have raised her name only to put it down, and at that, put it down on a personal basis, when you might have put it down on the basis of the Janus Society in Philadelphia rejecting a DOB top coordinator."

KL: Hmmm.

MS: Do you have any memory of this?

KL: I don't remember any of this.

MS: Any idea of who the people who might have objected in Philadelphia might have been? Would that have been someone like Joan Fraser? Any recall?

KL: Well I don't know whether Joan was active when I wrote this. When the hell did I write this?

MS: This was early '63. And these were all the words of this New Yorker, not of Joan or anyone else here. She was speculating.

KL: Well Clark might have found Barbara unacceptable. Clark and Barbara didn't get along that well.

MS: Is that right?

KL: Clark was a very abrasive person. Again, he was a one-man band. He was on his own tack. He was abrasive and he might have objected to Barbara.

MS: Oh, O.K.

KL: We weren't thrilled with DRUM when it came out. In retrospect, I'm pretty kind to it.

MS: Well this is all before DRUM actually started.

KL: Oh, O.K.

MS: And I guess if it was early '63, Clark wouldn't have been the head of Janus yet.

KL: No but he was there. And he was on the scene, I think.

MS: O.K. Well the next controversy I have is in late 1963. And it seems that around that time you and Barbara both resigned from the New York chapter. And it was before the controversies over picketing started. And I have the letter of resignation that you wrote to the DOB chapter.

KL: Oh god.

MS: And it doesn't really give the reasons. But there is a letter that Barbara wrote that I came across that raises objections about how meetings had been run, raises questions about the character of the organization and things like that. Do you recall the reasons for your resigning from New York‑DOB?

KL: Well I think our general feeling was there were greener pastures to go on to. When was this now, '63?

MS: Yeah, Barbara was already the editor of The Ladder.

KL: Right.

MS: But you switched your affiliation to the national DOB, so it was an objection that I think that you had to the New York chapter.

KL: Well I think Marion and Shirley pretty much were running things in New York. They wanted a place of their own in Manhattan but couldn't really afford decent quarters. And they took some basement apartment, sort of between the Village and Soho, and it had a peculiar odor to it. And we found out a murder had taken place in there and some body had been in there for a long time.

MS: Oh my.

KL: Anyway, we clean and clean and clean it, but still we couldn't get the smell out. And I think we found that kind of off-putting. I think we thought it was misguided to try to have a place when you couldn't really have a decent place, which, of course, we still object about because we don't really like going down that little smelly street to the clubs. Sorry!

MS: No, I take no offense at that. So you don't remember any political disagreements that led to your resignation?

KL: Well I don't think we were too thrilled with the leadership at the time. But I think it was a matter of we felt more affinity with Washington Mattachine and with the activism that was coming from that direction.

MS: Right, right. O.K.

KL: And DOB held back. They were so conservative, didn't know if they wanted to take a position on sickness, and wouldn't back picketing, and this and that.

MS: And you saw Mattachine as being different.

KL: And to hell with it. There were just too many people that had a point of view that was alien to ours.

MS: O.K. well here's another letter that I 'm sure was never meant to be seen that you wrote in late 1963 to Cleo Glenn. And it says, "Put all this under your hat and don't let it slip out at the wrong time. This is pure conjecture on my part, but may serve to inform you in advance if a strange event occurs. This much is fact: A sprinkling of people active in East Coast homophile groups would like to see a formal federation of these groups." And you talk about concerns that ECHO was going to become a stronger federation. Let's see. You give some facts supporting the hypothesis: "Some important members of the organizations have taken out memberships in other ECHO groups. Two Janus Society members recently joined not national DOB, New York DOB. And a New York Mattachine member has joined Janus. Barbara was told by a Janus member here that the big nuts of each organization should join the other groups and support them." O.K and then there's another passage that says, "Talk about intrigue. For whatever it's worth, Marion and Shirley have, we hear, been encouraging the two Janus members to start a DOB chapter in Philly. These girls may be disgruntled if the upcoming Janus election doesn't go their way." And I assume that refers to Marge and Joan. "So don't be surprised if you hear about this, too. Perhaps Philly is ripe. However, Marion seems to be deliberately circumventing Barbara and myself and Mrs. Shotwell, all solid DOB members, for the sake of courting the Janus people, who may or may not prove suitable chapter founders. To add to the confusion, we have a most erratic friend, an infrequent Janus supporter, who also wants to start a DOB chapter here."

KL: I have no idea who that is.

MS: What do you make of that?

KL: I have no memory whatsoever of all that drivel.

MS: It does seem to refer to Marge and Joan because I know that Marge ran for the presidency of Janus against Clark. So that might have been what you were referring to as the Janus election was going on.

KL: I don't know. Frankly it's all like a tempest in a teapot now. I don't know what to make of any of this. I don't know who this stray person is who might want to start something here.

MS: No, I don't know who that might have been. I'm more interested in the idea that the two New York people were interested in starting a DOB chapter here.

KL: What two New York people?

MS: Well the letter says Marion and Shirley were trying…

KL: Oh Marion and Shirley, yeah.

MS: …to interest Joan and Marge.

KL: Well that could be. I don't know.

MS: No other thoughts?

KL: No, no other thoughts. I mean this little stewpot that you're investigating is so inconsequential. I don't know.

MS: O.K.. All right. Here's another letter, in mid-64, that refers to some of this:  "Marge ran for president of Janus last winter and lost severely to a man who's known to be extremely unpopular." That would be Clark. "Where does this leave Marge? Having lost influence in Janus, she perhaps would like to sport some in DOB. Marge's roommate, Joan Fleischmann, has carried for some years some animosity toward Barbara, after Barbara censored some wild statements Joan wanted to put in the New York chapter newsletter." This is in a discussion about whether Marge should be a national DOB officer.

KL: By the way, I think probably any problem between Barbara and Joan really was more along the lines of this kind of thing, that Barbara wouldn't let her statements go in the newsletter, rather than from any supposed affair that they had. I don't think that there was any great emotional problem between them springing from romantic interest.

MS: O.K. Alright.

KL: I think it was just a matter of Barbara did do the newsletter and she did have control of it and probably looked a little bit like Clark Polak. In other words, she had control and she was a one‑man band and she wouldn't let anybody else put anything in that she wouldn't like.

MS: What were the biggest conflicts that you and Barbara had with both New York DOB and national DOB. You were saying before that they had more of a sit‑back attitude. And you were saying before also that there were debates over the sickness theory.

KL: Well they were heavily into participating in research projects with the psychologists. They sort of had a blind faith that our orientation would be exonerated if we would but go along with all these studies. And then these professionals would draw up their papers and write books and so forth and take our case to the public that we were really AOK. So they were very much into the research bag. And we weren't taken with that at all. Because we were persuaded that Frank Kameny was right, that the burden of proof was on the doctors to prove that we were sick and that they hadn't shouldered their burden. And furthermore, we didn't approve of this attitude that we should let them exonerate us and then go before the public and clear us. We felt that we should speak on our own behalf. And so that was one difficulty with DOB. The other one was that, though they gave lip service to fighting for law reform, they really didn't do very much. I'm sure they felt that, if the proper psychological studies were done to clear us, it would be very helpful in getting the laws reformed. So they tended to put that first and put law reform back on the back burner. But there was not much interest in the political arena in the old days, in the '60s, early '60s, mid-60s. My major gripe with DOB I guess was twofold. First of all, they were pretty much a social service organization. They wanted to cater to the personal needs of lesbians and to help them meet one another. And that was fine with me. But I didn't see it as anything that was something I wanted to give a lot of time to. And largely they wanted to reform a lot of lesbians that they thought had gone astray and were leading rather irresponsible lives in the bars and wearing pants all day and drinking too much and lying in bed in the morning and not holding down a regular job and all those things. It was sort of a reformist's attitude of "We know better. We know what you gotta' do to make yourself an O.K. citizen. And we're going to help you." And it was demeaning in that sense. And also there was a sort of a teacher/pupil dichotomy. "We know better. We're going to tell you how to live. You put on a skirt. You hold on a good job. And then society will accept you." And I always thought the truth was that most gay women were already holding down the nine‑to‑five job and were in a very oppressed, kind of screwed‑down situation where they had to be terribly circumspect and watch what they said and watch what they did. And that their problem was more in that direction. Also, their not favoring picketing at the start was very off‑putting to me.

MS: Mmhmm.

KL: I can't think of anything else. I'm flagging a little. Go ahead.

Ladder Cover, June 1966 with photo before and after

Cover of The Ladder, June 1966 (top) with original photo below. Photo: Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen Gay History Papers and Photographs, New York Public Library.

MS: Well I want to talk about something else too. I'm very interested in the photography work that you started doing in The Ladder that I know you were responsible for. And I have a bunch of other notes about those, how you made the decision to start doing that. And I guess it started in mid‑1964. I have compliments that you received and some letters about how well the first covers looked.

KL: From headquarters?

MS: No, this one particular letter was from Don Slater.

KL: Oh.

MS: A letter from Barbara I have here saying she's interested in pictures of pairs of women or of a woman alone, but preferably not conveying despair.

KL: Right!

MS: A letter from you explaining how you used to take photography in summer camp. And a lot of materials about this. And then a lot of discussion about how and whether to conceal the identity of the people being photographed. What was the whole idea of shifting to photographic covers and using photography. Why was that important to you?

KL: Well initially, when we took over the magazine, all we had were drawings for covers. And just as the mainstream press hardly ever mentioned anything about homosexuality unless it had to do with a spy or a security clearance or some shrink's theory, you hardly ever saw a gay person depicted in a picture somewhere.

MS: Right.

KL: And all the lesbian trashies, the old novels that used to sell for quarter or something, they would have a title like Twisted Love or something like that.

MS: Right, right.

KL: They would always have these buxom lustful women on the covers. And so there weren't any really true depictions of lesbians. And so we thought that was a very important thing to do. And I guess in today's parlance, it would come down to trying to mainstream the lesbian and really show that she is a part of the mainstream.

MS: Right.

KL: She's there. You know her already. You just don't know you know her, right?

MS: Right. And that could be done much better with photography than drawings.

KL: Yeah, exactly.

MS: And did you have trouble getting people willing to do that?

KL: Yes, a lot at the start. And so we took a lot of pictures of the backs of heads. And then we had people in shadow so that they couldn't really be seen. They were sort of in silhouette against the sunset or something. And in profile or in the distance, walking down a street holding hands with backs to the camera on Beacon Hill.

MS: A couple of the letters refer to some people being willing to be photographed because they were self‑employed. I thought that was interesting.

KL: That could be. I suppose that might have been the case. And then we had a woman in profile who was in England and who had started a lesbian organization there. And then we had a woman in Indonesia.

MS: Yeah, I have the correspondence about that, too. Her name was Ger Van Bram? Does that sound familiar?

Lilli Vincenz, Ladder Cover

Lilli Vincenz on the cover of Ladder, June 1966. Photo: Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen Gay History Papers and Photographs, New York Public Library.

KL: Sounds right.

MS: In fact there was one person in Seattle, I guess, with whom you were discussing using nude photographs. You wrote, "We would be interested in the character and mood shots that you speak of, as well as your nude studies."

KL: Yeah, she had a very nice nude. I think it was mostly from the rear. But it was very tasteful.

MS: You wrote, "Of course we especially look forward to the nude studies that you proposed originally. I should say we're really enthusiastic." That didn't ever go into print, though, right?

KL: No.

MS: Do you think that would have been pushing the boundaries too much.

KL: Probably, probably. I don't know how the officers at headquarters would have taken that. I don't know if they would have permitted it in those years.

MS: Was that something that you would have advocated, though, yourself?

KL: Possibly, as one in a series of twelve for the year, but not month after month. I don't know what else to say about it. It might have been something that we might have used once.

MS: Do you think that it would have fit into the mainstreaming thing that you were talking about?

KL: Not particularly, but it was a very tasteful photograph. I may have it here somewhere.

MS: So in that sense, maybe it would have if it was tasteful.

KL: Yeah. We had a marvelous statue that was nude that we wanted to use. And we wrote for permission. What's that big museum in San Francisco that's so well‑known?

MS: I can't think of it.

KL: It has huge grounds around it. Anyway, they wrote back: no interest.

MS: Really!

KL: We wrote them a letter and they sent our letter back. No interest.

MS: Well those are real innovations. It seems like you got a lot of complimentary letters about them as well.

KL: Well we were ready with full face by the time Barbara's editorship ended, but we never got that far.

MS: I see.

KL: That was very important to me. Taking our minority out from under wraps and what you might call the normalization of gay. I hate to use that phrase, but perhaps mainstream is better. I don't know. I'm not quite sure what words to use in this regard. But gay people were always depicted as such creatures.

MS: So representing a healthy and happy body would have been important.

KL: Yeah right.