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Pioneering Lesbians Kay Lahusen, Rusty Warren Dead

Kay Lahusen and Rusty Warren
From left: Kay Lahusen and Rusty Warren

Lahusen was a photographer and activist, Warren a risque comedian.

Two history-making lesbians have died this week.

Kay Lahusen, a groundbreaking photographer and life partner of fellow activist Barbara Gittings, died Wednesday while in hospice care at Chester County Hospital in Pennsylvania, after a brief illness. She was 91. Comedian Rusty Warren, also 91, died Tuesday.

Lahusen was known as the first out gay photojournalist. She and Gittings met at a Daughters of Bilitis picnic in Boston in 1961; Gittings had founded the organization's New York chapter. They were active in the movement for LGBTQ+ equality throughout their lives (Gittings died in 2007), notes an obituary from Founds Funeral Home in West Chester, Pa., and Lahusen's photography documented their advocacy. Her photos appeared in many gay publications.

Lahusen also contributed to books. She researched and wrote the 1972 book Gay Crusaders, published under the name Kay Tobin; her friend Randy Wicker, a man, was listed as coauthor to help the volume gain "public acceptance," according to the obit. The research materials for the book are in the New York Public Library's collection, along with numerous other photos and documents from Lahusen. The library drew on her collection for the 2019 book Love and Resistance. She also collaborated with journalist Tracy Baim on a biography of Gittings, which includes many of Lahusen's photos.

The couple lived variously in New York, Philadelphia, and Wilmington, Del. In 1965, Gittings participated in one of the first gay rights protests at the White House, and in the 1970s, she helped persuade the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Late in life, Gittings and Lahusen moved into an assisted-living facility in Pennsylvania, where "our last bit of activism was to come out in the newsletter," Lahusen told The New York Times at the time of Gittings's death. But Lahusen's activism continued. "She would talk about her experiences as a gay activist at the drop of a hat, even regaling the nurses at Chester County Hospital with her story days before her death," according to her obituary.

Lahusen's remains will be buried with those of Gittings in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., "in a bench designed to express their love for each other and their dedication to showing that Gay is Good," the obit notes.

There is less information available about Warren's death, which was reported by a website called The Laugh Button. But there is much about her life. She became famous in the 1960s with her nightclub appearances and comedy albums, performing routines and songs usually described as "bawdy." She dealt frankly with sex and encouraged women to enjoy it openly. Her song titles include "The Knockers Up March" from her second album, Knockers Up, and "Bounce Your Boobies." She became known as "the mother of the sexual revolution."

A classically trained pianist and singer, she got her start as a nightclub musician but found the gigs boring. "Something didn't satisfy me about just sitting at the piano, so I started talking," she told the Please Kill Me blog in 2018. The subject was usually sex.

"She was talking to the women, encouraging them to stand tall, throw their shoulders back and their knockers up," the blog notes. "At the same time, she was making the men laugh like they didn't know what was hitting them."

She frequently headlined at prominent clubs such as Mister Kelly's in Chicago and the Pomp Room in Phoenix but made appearances in many small towns as well. She did not get much television exposure, due to both the nature of her material and the fact that comedy was very much a "boys' club" at the time. She also had to be closeted about her lesbianism in order to maintain her career, but she came out later in life and performed on lesbian cruises in the 1990s. She lived for many years in the suburbs of Phoenix, but in retirement, she divided her time between Southern California and Hawaii.

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