Revisiting the Archive — Episode 6 — Kay Lahusen’s Gay Table
When did you make gay history? Join host Eric Marcus, pioneering photojournalist Kay Lahusen, and a group of LGBTQ history-making elders for their monthly retirement community dinner. Happy memories from the recent pre-pandemic past.
Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus and this is another dispatch from Making Gay History’s quarantine closet studio.
I’m recording this introduction six weeks since my partner Barney and I began sheltering in place at our home in New York City. Six weeks into staying home except for the essentials and we’re six weeks into trying to stay sane in isolation. One thing that definitely helps is talking with dear friends—even talking with dear friends about sad news. A few days ago, I called my friend Kay Lahusen to let her know she’d be hearing from a reporter at the Financial Times who was working on an obituary for Phyllis Lyon, who had just died at 95, from natural causes other than Covid-19. Phyllis co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first organization for lesbians in 1955—and Kay is one of the very few people still alive who remembers Phyllis from the early days of the movement.
If you’ve been listening to Making Gay History since our early days, Kay and her late partner, Barbara Gittings, may feel like dear friends to you. Both Kay and Barbara are icons of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, happy warriors during the 1960s and post-Stonewall ’70s who showed how you could change the world and have a good time doing it. While Barbara organized, picketed, and published, Kay was behind the scenes, strategizing and documenting the movement in print and photographs.
Barbara died in 2007. Kay is 90 and lives in a retirement community two-and-a-half hours southwest of New York City.
When I spoke with Kay about the Financial Times reporter, she had just finished having lunch on a tray in her room. While there are no reported cases of Covid-19 at the place where she lives, the management is understandably taking no chances. So the main dining room is empty, which means a very special dinner group is suspended until further notice—
Kay Lahusen: We have a gay dinner table. Once a month we meet in the main dining room and I take along this little gay flag and the American flag. And we put that in the middle of the table, we plant our flag.
EM Narration: That’s Kay, telling me about her gay table… And I want to take you back to an evening of friendship and pride with some incredible LGBTQ elders—Kay and her friends—who I had the privilege of joining at the gay table for dinner on March 26, 2018. Such a happy memory. So let’s go back to a time when we thought nothing of getting on a train to visit an old friend. All aboard!
Train Conductor: Now arriving Wilmington, Delaware.
EM Narration: Our destination was about a 20-minute drive west from the Wilmington, Delaware, Amtrak station, a route that took us across the state line and into the Pennsylvania countryside. Turning from a tree-lined parkway onto a winding, leafy drive, we pulled up at the main building of Kendal at Longwood, the Quaker-run community where Kay lives.
KL: Eric, my dear…
KL: How are you?
KL: Here I am.
EM: So good to see you!
KL: [to Sara Burningham] You do the audio.
Sara Burningham: I’m the producer.
EM: Yeah, Sara’s the producer. Well, c’mon in… So we’ll go in.
EM Narration: As we walk into the large communal dining room, over in the right corner beside a wall of windows, is a table set for eight with Kay’s arrangement of flags and rainbow flowers at its center.
Marj McCann: We have a white and we have a red.
EM: I’ll have a tiny bit of white. Just so I can, we can make a toast.
KL: What are we toasting? To Eric’s podcast?
MM: To the podcast.
All: To the podcast.
EM: I think I’d like to make a toast to gay history and all of the combined histories at this table.
Carole Smith: Hear, hear.
EM Narration: It’s no exaggeration to say that at this table of Kay’s friends, everyone has made history, in ways big and small, and sometimes in ways they won’t even acknowledge to themselves.
Take Marj McCann. She’s been living in the Kendal retirement community with her wife, Carole Smith, since October 2012.
EM: I have a sentence I’d like you to complete.
MM: Oh, I hate these.
EM: If you were a tree… No, that’s the Barbara Walters question.
[CS and MM laugh.]
The line begins, “I made gay history when…” So, Marj, why don’t you go first.
MM: I don’t think I did… make gay history. There were people ahead of me that did so much more.
EM Narration: As a matter of fact, in the mid-1960s Marj was the secretary of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first organization for lesbians, founded in 1955. And she gave a speech at the conference of the East Coast Homophile Organizations after asking attorneys general in every state about the legal status of gay people.
That conference took place in September 1965. That’s four years before Stonewall.
MM: There were seven people in the world who were active then, okay? And all the rest was done with mirrors.
EM: So there’s a photo of that ECHO conference with Shirley Willer standing in the middle. Is that the ECHO conference I’m thinking of?
EM: Are you in that picture?
MM: Umm, if I recall correctly, in a dress.
EM: You are. Okay. How did that happen?
MM: That’s what you wore in those days, particularly DOB. We were exceedingly conscious of behaving like ladies so as to be more accepted. It was harder for some of us.
EM Narration: Marj and Carole have been together for 27 years. Carole says that her historic moment came in 1992. That’s when news of her and Marj’s commitment ceremony made the Sunday paper in their hometown of Philadelphia, where Carole was a teacher.
CS: I went into school Monday morning and the principal called me down. And I thought, “Oh, god. Gird your loins, girl. Just do it.” And I went to the principal’s office and he was a big tall Irishman, Joe Sweeney. And he said, “First, congratulations. And, second, if you need me, call me.”
Well, as high school children will, I was the buzz. And so I said to my class, “Yes, I am a lesbian. Yes, my children know I am a lesbian. And if any of you have any questions, as long as you’re not gonna ask me what I do in the bedroom, I will stay after school every day this week and we will talk. And several kids came. And I think I helped them along their way. I told them about the Attic. I provided some other resources for them.
EM: That’s something.
MM: That is definitely something.
CS: So that they didn’t necessarily have to have the same struggle I had.
Colin Johnstone: I’m Colin Johnstone.
John Fong: And I’m John Fong.
EM Narration: These two have been together for 47 years, which to me feels pretty historic in its own right, but there’s more.
CJ: I made gay history when we were the first gay couple to have a blessing service in an Episcopal monastery. We met on January 10, 1971, a date that lives in infamy.
[Colin and John laugh.]
We met in a bar. I was struggling to come out. I was still dating women. And I was studying for an exam and I got tired of studying. Saturday night I went down to my local gay bar for a beer and who should walk in but this young man.
JF: Well, I was going through the throes of a breakup. Friends of mine said, “You have to go out again.” So I said, “I’ll go out if you take me to a gay bar that I haven’t been to.” They drove me to this remote gay bar in…
CJ: … Germantown.
JF: Germantown. And, believe me, it was remote. And…
CJ: … the rest is history. Moved to Brookline. We got married after the Massachusetts Superior Court decision and we had a blessing service in an Episcopal monastery in Cambridge.
JF: The only one.
CJ: The only one.
EM: The only one that had ever been done there.
CJ: Still the first…
JF: Still the only…
CJ: … still the first and only gay blessing service.
EM Narration: Also joining us at the table is José Hernandez Alvarez, a slight, quiet man, but don’t let that fool you. He tells us how he fought for, and won, custody of his three children after his first marriage, to a woman, fell apart. José came out at 40 and says that he was the first gay parent ever to be awarded custody in the state of Wisconsin, but that victory came at a price.
José Hernandez Alvarez: I could just about hold down a job and take care of the kids during that time. When it appeared in the newspapers, a gang came and broke every single window in our house. We had to go live with some friends, you know, because it was so cold in the winter. And after that I was stalked by guys who trailed me wherever I went in Milwaukee.
And, fortunately, the people I worked with at the sociology department there in the University of Wisconsin, they said, “We need you too much to let you go on the basis of your troubles here in Milwaukee, so move to Chicago in secrecy. Don’t give anybody your telephone number or your address. Keep that absolutely secret and commute between the two cities to do your job.” And I did, for three years.
Commuting was difficult, but it freed me up to be myself. I moved into a small apartment and then I got a larger one where I could have the kids. And Chicago meant freedom to me. And I began to act as a gay man.
EM Narration: Celebrating the freedom to be themselves, to be out and proud—that’s why this dinner happens every month.
JF: It’s nice and important to know that you’re not the only one.
CJ: Yeah, well, ditto, but also I think it’s important to be visible. It’s as important, I think, when you live in a place like this, just like it’s important to come out. I think it’s been responsible for breaking down barriers and breaking down prejudices. And I think it’s just as important in a community like this, because not everybody’s necessarily accepting. But when they see there is an active, involved gay community in a retirement community like this, I think it’s, “Oh, wow!”
CS: So, Eric, I will say this. There are some people who are residents who are not thrilled that we’re here and we’re out and about.
MM: And we don’t know who they are.
CS: We don’t know who they are. And they’re very Quakerly about it, so…
MM: We’ve just been told they exist.
EM: Do you know who they are?
KL: No, I don’t know who they are.
CS: No. Well, I imagine the one guy that puts on Fox News in the fitness center might be one of them.
EM Narration: Our dinner conversation weaves from movie reviews—John and Colin loved Call Me by Your Name, I didn’t—to gossiping about the past—Henri David’s legendary Philadelphia Halloween parties—to gossiping about the present—who’s not on the list for the gay table but maybe should be… And then, José, who’s been quiet through much of the meal, shares this hope for the future.
JHA: What can I say. I’m a Buddhist. And I really hope that in my next life I can begin as a gay male around age 15 or so, to have a much different life than I had in this time. I’ve told my kids that and I tell them that I love them very deeply and I would go through the same thing again for them no matter what. But that doesn’t apply to the next time, ha, ha, if there is such a thing. So, that’s my hope.
EM Narration: My dinner companions, who expressed pride before it was safe to do so, are now claiming their space as elders. Once again they’re pushing for change, demanding recognition and paving the way. One dinner at a time.
KL: You know, Eric, this is the liveliest table in the place.
MM: Oh, yeah, it always is.
KL: That’s why every time we meet, we’re carrying on. All these other people are…
CJ: All these old straight people are very boring.
CS: Yeah, you know, we’ve kind of made a hard and fast rule. You can’t go to the German table if you don’t speak German. You can’t go to the Spanish table if you don’t speak Spanish. Ergo…
EM: So gay is spoken at the gay table.
MM: Gay is spoken at the gay table.
CS: Fluently, right.
EM Narration: So when you reach the age where you’re thinking about moving into a retirement community—and I’m almost there—or face the prospect of a nursing home, maybe there’ll be a rainbow flag at one of the dining room tables. And it will be thanks, in part, to elders like Kay, Carole, Marj, José, John, and Colin, who have been fighting for us all along.
CS: So if Barbara truly was the mother of the gay rights movement, I believe you two co-parented.
EM Narration: You’ll find links to two Making Gay History episodes drawn from my 1989 interviews with Kay Lahusen and Barbara Gittings in the notes for this episode.
You’ve been hearing Kay and her friends telling us how they made history—and we’d love to hear your stories so please email us at email@example.com, or tweet us or reach out to us on Instagram, completing the sentence: “I’m—insert your name here—and I made gay history when…” We really look forward to hearing from you.
I’ve been asking you to write to me to tell me which episodes from the Making Gay History archive have been meaningful to you. Tim McLane from Maryland responded that “Kay Lahusen’s Gay Table is my inspiration, which I listened to in the midst of Covid-19 self-isolation.” Tim’s note is part of the reason we decided to bring you this episode.
Tim went on to complete the sentence, “I made gay history when…”—
I, Tim McLane, made gay history when I sat at my laptop, today, typed this email… and hit send. I am not a leader of anything, an activist of anything, or a maverick in any part of gay history. I am a complete coward, compared to the amazing, courageous stories you share… Just saying the words “I am gay” does not come easy for me.
So, for all the people who still struggle today, in whatever capacity, with making a mark with your own LGBTQ situation… you are my gay history heroes. Simply because, I can relate. I, like you, make gay history all by my lonesome.
Tim, I’ve been thinking about what you said and I think that all of us who are able to acknowledge to ourselves our true natures and live our lives as openly as we’re able to are making gay history every day. Thanks, Tim, for writing.
Thank you also to our listeners who have recently made donations to support Making Gay History, so we can continue sharing these stories that have the power to inspire. I know that many people are struggling financially, so I’m especially grateful to donors like Scott Kirkham from Pennsylvania. We’re also extremely grateful to the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation for choosing to support Making Gay History’s mission for another year—and grateful, as well, to Barbara Raab, the foundation’s senior advisor. Thank you.
This special episode of Making Gay History was produced by Sara Burningham with assistance from Josh Gwynn. A very special thank-you to Carole Smith for her help and for hosting us at Kendel at Longwood. And thank you to Inge De Taeye, Making Gay History’s deputy director, for handling all the post-production work to get our episodes out to you.
So long. Stay safe. Until next time.