This article first appeared in HRC’s Equality magazine. View the latest issue at hrc.org/magazine.
Kay Tobin Lahusen made her mark on history by photographing LGBTQ activism during the Stonewall era.
“We were fighting for our rights well before Stonewall,” Lahusen, the first openly gay American woman photojournalist, told Equality. “[Stonewall] was a spark that did kick a movement forward… it was a flashpoint in the movement. But they were inspired by some older activists, and I’m glad to say I was among them.”
On June 28, 1969, the uprising at The Stonewall Inn, a bar in New York City, was a pivotal marker in the beginning of the LGBTQ rights movement in the U.S. After experiencing police brutality simply for congregating, LGBTQ patrons decided to take a stand and fight back against the brutal intimidation they regularly faced.
Stonewall was the most visible incidence of police brutality against the community, but it was part of a pattern of law enforcement targeting LGBTQ people without cause. Three years earlier and 3,000 miles away, police in San Francisco were arresting drag queens, transgender women and other LGBTQ people at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria. One drag queen resisted arrest and threw coffee in an officer’s face, sparking the Compton's Cafeteria Riot, which many historians peg as a transgender uprising.
This trend continued a year after that, when undercover police raided the Black Cat Tavern, a Los Angeles bar, on New Year’s Eve after same-sex couples kissed to celebrate the New Year. Police beat patrons and arrested 14 people. On Feb. 11, 1967, people picketed this injustice outside the bar.
The brutality is among the many reasons why LGBTQ people who were involved in pickets and protests all across the U.S. were hesitant about having their photograph taken. As Lahusen recounts, it wasn’t easy to capture that history through the lens of a camera. People were afraid their parents would see them on the front page of a newspaper or that their employer might see them and fire them.
“A lot of people did not want to be photographed even in the Stonewall era itself very often. I needed to ask, or they would say ‘I only want to be photographed in profile or in shadow or in silhouette’... After the marches and pickets began, then people became willing to pose full face for me. But before then, it was almost impossible,” Lahusen said.
Lahusen, who took photographs of the first LGBTQ Pride parade in New York City a year after Stonewall and subsequent parades, spoke about how the Stonewall riots inspired LGBTQ visibility.
“I always thought it was terribly important to take pictures of gay people, because frankly, everything was so buttoned-down,” she said. “It was terribly important to share gay people as I knew them. Many people, even gay people, didn’t know what other gay people looked like.”
The fight for full LGBTQ equality has grown and evolved exponentially — but at its core, the goals of the movement are largely the same today as they were when Lahusen joined the fight decades ago, after meeting her future wife, prominent LGBTQ activist Barbara Giddings, at a picnic in Rhode Island.
“I’m so glad that I did [join] because there was nothing more rewarding than working in a movement that was larger than your cause and working to change hearts and minds in a very important arena,” she said. “I did it for my own gratification to try to put meaning in my life and lots of fun too. So I managed both and to find someone to love named Barbara Giddings and have a lovely life with her.”
As we honor the legacy of the Stonewall riots and the other riots that led to it, we celebrate the progress made by the LGBTQ community, but are also opportunities to acknowledge the distance we still have to go to achieve full equality. Join HRC and others and find a Pride event near you at hrc.org/pride.