Only a few openly gay activists were protesting in the 1960s, yet Kay Tobin Lahusen was there — with her camera.
Lahusen — one of the first openly lesbian photojournalists — was in Washington capturing several of these protests happening at places like the White House and the Pentagon during a time when being gay or bisexual was still considered a mental disorder.
It wasn’t the first — or last — time Lahusen photographed a gay rights protest. She and fellow photojournalist Diana Davies were both well known in the 1960s and 1970s for their coverage of the LGBTQ community. Many of their images now have a home at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building for “Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50,” an exhibition that explores LGBTQ culture and activism before and after the Stonewall riots that followed a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village 50 years ago this month.
A particular image of Lahusen’s that stands out to Jason Baumann, the exhibition’s curator, was a picture of a gay rights protest at the Pentagon in the 1960s. Baumann believes Lahusen captured the significance of what these activists were fighting for, even though there were just 20 people there.
“She knows it’s a historic event even if the rest of society hasn’t figured that out,” he said.
“Love & Resistance” was three years in the making, mostly because the library has the most extensive archival collection in the country.
It’s organized in four sections: “Resistance,” “Bars,” “In Print” and “Love.” While the “Resistance” and “In Print” themes focused on protests and political conversations in LGBTQ publications, “Bars” explores how nightlife played a role in allowing people to meet, while “Love” takes an intimate look at hidden relationships between same-sex couples and photos of drag parties.
Baumann spent about a decade digitizing photos and had a lot of time to explore NYPL’s archives. It gave him a chance to learn about the history behind the fight for transgender rights.
“The thing that was most interesting to me going through (it) was how important transgender activism was at the time,” he said. “It had a much longer arc than I think people usually think. I think a lot of people think of transgender activism is something very recent, but actually, it goes back much further into the 1950s and 1960s.”
It also gave Baumann a chance to learn about Lee Brewster, the founder of Queens Liberation Front, and how he and other activists successfully advocated against a New York City law that didn’t allow people to cross-dress.
“There are lots of these different kinds of characters from that time that aren’t really remembered today, but were really pivotal in the community in the 1960s and 1970s,” Baumann said.
The Schwarzman Building is part of the library’s main location in Midtown, and because of that, Baumann is excited to have the exhibition available to a wide variety of people.
“You get to reach this amazing tourist audience,” he said. “And then there’s also the main audience of the library — many of them young people — and so I think it’s important for them to see that this was a civil rights movement, which I think is something that gets forgotten.”
For audiences who might not be familiar with the significance of the Stonewall riots, Baumann wants the exhibition to give them a broader look into LGBTQ history.
“The most important thing for them to realize is that Stonewall wasn’t the beginning of this LGBT movement,” he said. “A lot of time people think it starts there, and really, there’s this history from the 1950s of LGBT political organizing in the United States.”
Looking at how much has changed and still needs to change in the LGBTQ community over the last 50 years, Baumann hopes people leave the exhibition having learned about pioneers in the community who were “willing to put themselves on the line to make a difference.”
“I’d like this show to be inspirational for … LGBTQ people to know that our society changed because people like them and before them really became politically active at a grassroots level,” Baumann said.
“But I think it’s really a message for everybody that what’s really essential to our democracy is our personal involvement, and our society can change for the better when we get personally involved and organized.”