Kay Lahusen’s Gay Table
On Monday, March 26, 2018, Sara Burningham—Making Gay History’s executive producer—and Making Gay History’s host, Eric Marcus, had the pleasure of joining Kay Tobin Lahusen and several of her friends for dinner at Kay’s monthly gay table in the Kendal Center’s main dining room at the Kendal at Longwood retirement community where she lives in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
Kay: I’m Kay Tobin Lahusen and this is Making Gay History.
Eric’s narration: And I’m Eric Marcus. Welcome to a very special Pride episode of Making Gay History, with one of this podcast’s most beloved heroes, Kay Tobin Lahusen.
Kay and her partner Barbara Gittings are icons of the early LGBTQ civil rights movement. While Barbara organized, picketed and published, Kay was behind the scenes, documenting the movement in print and photographs. You’ve probably seen the black and white mid-1960s photos from Reminder Day in Philadelphia and the first protests in front of the White House. That was Kay. That photo of Sylvia Rivera draped on the edge of a fountain? That was Kay, too.
I call Kay and Barbara the happy warriors of the movement because they knew how to have a good time while changing the world—our world—for the better.
Barbara died in 2007. Kay is 88 now and living in a retirement community.
Kay: 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.
Eric’s narration: We’ve got a dinner date with Kay and her friends, and you’re invited, too.
[Train conductor announcement: Now arriving Wilmington, Delaware.]
Eric’s narration: Our destination is about a 20-minute drive west from the Wilmington, Delaware, Amtrak station, a route that takes us across the state line and into the Pennsylvania countryside. Turning from a tree-lined parkway onto a winding, leafy driveway, we pull up at the main building of Kendal at Longwood, the Quaker-run community where Kay lives.
Kay: Eric, my dear…
Kay: How are you?
Kay: Here I am.
Eric: So good to see you!
Kay [to Sara Burningham]: You do the audio.
Sara Burningham: …the producer.
Eric: Yeah, Sara’s the producer. Well, c’mon in… so we’ll go in.
Eric’s 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.
Eric: I’ll have a tiny bit of white. Just so I can… we can make a toast.
Kay: What are we toasting? To Eric’s podcast?
Marj: To the podcast.
All: To the podcast.
Eric: I think I’d like to make a toast to gay history and all of the combined histories at this table.
Carole Smith: Here, here.
Eric’s 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.
Eric: I have a sentence I’d like you to complete.
Marj: Oh, I hate these.
Eric: If you were a tree… no, that’s the Barbara Walters question.
[Carole and Marj laugh]
The line begins, “I made gay history when…” So, Marj, why don’t you go first.
Marj: I don’t think I did… make gay history. There were people ahead of me that did so much more.
Eric’s 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.
Marj: There were seven people in the world who were active then, okay? And all the rest was done with mirrors.
Eric: So there’s a photo of that ECHO conference with Shirley Willer [DOB president] standing in the middle. Is that the ECHO conference I’m thinking of?
Eric: Are you in that picture?
Marj: Umm, if I recall correctly, in a dress.
Eric: You are. Okay. How did that happen?
Marj: 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.
Eric’s 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.
Carole: 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 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.
Eric: That’s something.
Marj: That is definitely something.
Carol: 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.
Eric’s narration: These two have been together for 47 years, which to me feels pretty historic in its own right, but there’s more.
Colin: I made gay history when we were the first gay couple to have a blessing service in an Episcopal monastery. We met on January the 10th, 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.
John: 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…
John: Germantown. And, believe me, it was remote. And…
Colin: …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.
John: The only one.
Colin: The only one.
Eric: The only one that had ever been done there.
Colin: Still first.
John: And still…
Colin: …still the first and only gay blessing service.
Eric’s 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 because, 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 at 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.
Eric’s narration: Celebrating the freedom to be themselves, to be out and proud—that’s why this dinner happens every month.
John: It’s nice and important to know that you’re not the only one.
Colin: 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!”
Carole: 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.
Marj: And we don’t know who they are.
Carole: We don’t know who they are. And they’re very Quakerly about it, so…
Marj: We’ve just been told they exist.
Eric: Do you know who they are:
Kay: No, I don’t know who they are.
Carole: No. Well, I imagine the one guy who puts on Fox News in the fitness center might be one of them.
Eric’s 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.
José: 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 fifteen 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.
Eric’s 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.
Kay: You know, Eric, this is the liveliest table in the place.
Marj: Oh, yeah, it always is.
Kay: That’s why every time we meet, we’re carrying on. All these other people are…
Colin: All these old straight people are very boring.
Carole: 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…
Eric: So gay is spoken at the gay table.
Marj: Gay is spoken at the gay table.
Carole: Fluently, right.
Eric’s 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.
Carole: So if Barbara truly was the mother of the gay rights movement, I believe you two co-parented.
Eric’s 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 and maybe we’ll share some of them during Season Four. So please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
This special episode of Making Gay History was produced by Sara Burningham with assistance from Josh Gwynn. Thanks to the Making Gay History crew: Will Coley, Denio Lourenco, Inge De Taeye, Jonathan Dozier-Ezell, Bronwen Pardes, Michael Green, and our composer Fritz Meyers.
A very special thank you to Carole Smith for her help and for hosting us. And, as always, thank you to our guardian angel Jenna Weiss-Berman.
The Making Gay History podcast is a co-production of Pineapple Street Media, with assistance from the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division and ONE Archives at the USC Libraries.
Making Gay History is made possible with funding from the Ford Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, and the Calamus Foundation.
You can subscribe to Making Gay History wherever you get your podcasts. Or go to makinggayhistory.com, where you’ll find all our episodes. Listening to them is as easy as clicking play. While you’re there take a look at the photos from our dinner with Kay and that iconic photo of the 1965 ECHO conference that Marj and I were talking about.
So long! Until next time!
Carole: Do you want us to take you back to the train? We can do that.
Eric: We can get a car. Because driving… It will be dark by the time…
Carole: Well, we’ve had cataract surgery. We can drive you…
Sara: Thanks for that clarification!