Gay History: The Daughters of Bilitis

The scene was 1950’s America where laws prohibited the congregating of “sex perverts”, a term in which homosexuals, crossdressers and transgender folk were routinely lumped in. Any bar or club which permitted this activity would have its liquor license revoked and even face permanent closure. Raids on suspected habitats were rampant and violent as America engulfed itself in the Lavender Scare. Unbeknownst to most citizens, this was a government created fear run by the CIA and the FBI with J. Edgar Hoover at the helm. Decades later the stories would break of the illegal spying and blatant fabrications the government had formed and perpetuated on peaceful institutions. Especially targeting any institute of a minority that could threaten the White, straight, middle-class Utopia some leaders were trying to desperately cling to. Yet despite the obstacles, the fear, and the propaganda two women found each other and would fall into a 55-year romance.

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon met in Seattle in 1950, two journalists who were both editors of separate Labor Journals. Lyon says that her first impression of Martin stuck in her mind because “She was the first woman I’d ever seen carrying a briefcase!.” The two struck up a friendship with Lyon maintaining that she was straight for the first two years, but eventually giving in and revealing her feelings to Del. The two shared an intimate night but made no commitments. Lyon left soon to return to San Francisco and continue her career; however, her thoughts remained on Martin. The two didn’t stay away from each other long and on Valentine’s Day in 1953 they made their commitment to one another official. The first year was hard, as it is with so many new couples, Lyon often jokes that they only stayed together because they couldn’t decide who would get the cat!

One of the biggest problems Phyllis and Del experienced was loneliness and isolation. While they had a few male gay friends, and some family close by, they were constantly frustrated at their lack of a lesbian circle. With raids and pressure mounting against queer hangouts it became even harder for the couple to meet others like them. This is when a new friend suggested the two come to a secret meeting which would discuss starting a private lesbian club. Phyllis says in her friend asked if she and Del would like to join a society of 6 lesbians and they both exclaimed “YES” because that would mean they’d each know 5 more lesbians. To their delight, the club formed with 8 lesbians, 4 couples and the group began to discuss locations as well as a name. No one is sure who suggested it but the name Bilitis came up. Bilitis was a fictional character from the poem “Songs of Bilitis” written by 19th-century poet Pierre Louys. In his poem, Bilitis falls in love with and seduces the notorious Sappho, who was a real lesbian in early Greece and an icon in lesbian history. In fact, before the term Lesbian, women attracted to other women were referred to as Sapphists. The club knew that any true Saphhist would know the name Bilitis was a subtle reference to the lesbian community. Yet it was certainly obscure enough to throw off the scent of any authorities or anti-gay hounds. For your enjoyment, here is an excerpt from the Songs of Bilitis:

Phyllis Lyon & Del Martín

Love me, not with smiles and flutes or plaited flowers, but with your heart and tears, as I adore you with my bosom and my sobs.

When your breasts alternate with mine, when I feel your very life touching my own when your knees rise up behind me, my panting mouth no longer even knows the way to yours.

Clasp me as I clasp you! See, the lamp has just gone out, we toss about in the night, but I press your moving body and I hear your ceaseless plaint. . .

Moan! moan! moan! oh, woman! Eros drags us now in heavy pain. You’ll suffer less upon this bed in bringing forth a child than you’ll agonize in bringing forth your love.

Panting, I took her hand and pressed it tightly beneath the humid skin of my left breast. My head tossed here and there and I moved my lips, but not a word escaped.

My maddened heart, sudden and hard, beat and beat upon my breast, as a captive satyr would beat about, tied in a goat-skin vessel. She said to me: “Your heart is troubling you..”

“Oh, Mnasidika!” I answered her, “a woman’s heart is not seated there. This is but a little bird, a dove which stirs its feeble wings. The heart of a woman is more terrible.

“It burns like a myrtle-berry, with a bright red flame, and beneath the abundant foam. ‘Tis there that I feel bitten by voracious Aphrodite.”

We are resting, our eyes closed; the quietude is great about our bed. Ineffable summer nights! But she, thinking that I sleep, puts her warm hand on my arm.

She murmurs: “Bilitis, are you asleep?” My heart pounds, but without answering I breathe as calmly as a sleeping woman in her dreams. Then she begins to speak:

“Since you cannot hear me,” she says, “Ah! how I love you!” And she repeats my name: “Bilitis . . . Bilitis . . . ” And she strokes me with the tips of trembling fingers:

Woodsworth quote and poster image from Liz Millward’s book “Making a Scene: Lesbians Community Across Canada 1964-84.”

“This mouth is mine! and mine alone! Is there another in the world as lovely? Ah! my happiness, my happiness! These naked arms are mine, this neck, this hair. . .

On October 19, 1955, the Daughters of Bilitis hosted their first meeting in the home of on the couples. We are going to read off the name of guests but it is important to know that many of these women went under pseudonyms even long after the LGBTQ movement took off. The list of newcomers was “Bobbie, Toni, Gwen, Elizabeth, Noni, Mary and Del, and Phyl.” In this meeting, they agreed to write their two gay affiliates the Mattachine Society and ONE Incorporated. These were of course two male groups and some mistook the DOB (Daughters of Bilitis) as being a direct branch of one of these institutions. But to the surprise of many, including the FBI who were already spying on the group, the women were perfectly capable of creating their own organization without the help of a man.

As instrumental as the DOB was it is important to remember this was still the 1950’s and they were not perfect, often being brainwashed or forced to assimilate to their societal standards. While it is easy to cast judgment on some of their rules and stances, the truth is their progress in such an oppressive time is what should be remembered the most. However, we will discuss some of the issues that caused problems in the beginning. One of the first issues to arise was the dress code. Most of the members believed that masculine clothing could paint the group in a bad light. In fact, a rule was established just a month later that “If slacks are worn they must be women’s slacks”. This was in response to three butch visitors attending a weekly meeting and striking fear into the hearts of some members. Of course, this mirrored the narrative at the time. The editor of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in 1957 “When ladies young and old wear sloppy slacks or tight pants on Market St. I wish I had a water pistol and could give each one of them a good squirt. Ladies, please be ladies.” We couldn’t find if the editor was a male or a female at this time, however, the stigma still applies.

Another issue the DOB faced was whether they wanted to be a social club or politically active. The women’s rights movement was taking off and the Homophile movement was starting to gain traction with more individuals coming out in public. A side note, the term Homophile was originally preferred as the root word “phile” is derived from the Greek word for love and early activists thought it would be better if people related gays with love rather than sex. But back to the DOB, the group was slowly growing and while some women wanted to further advance the fight for inclusivity, others simply wanted a place to meet where they could enjoy each other’s company without fear of being raided or targeted for violence. This issue would continue to divide members for the next 2 decades until the group would formally disband.

Barbara Gittings picketing Independence Hall as part of an Annual Reminder on July 4, 1966; photo by Kay Lahusen.

Finally, the biggest issue facing the country at this time did not escape the Daughters and its members. Despite the original 8 founders varying in their ethnicities, Racism still played a large factor as the organization expanded. While the first chapter had few issues with People of Color attending their meetings, as the DOB grew and more chapters were established around the country racial prejudice crept into the ranks and discouraged many fellow lesbians from attending the desperately sought meetings. It is sad to remember that simply because one minority group experiences oppression does not exclude them from being just as culpable in delivering that same oppression to another minority group. Throughout LGBTQ history we see exclusions in varying forms from the exclusion of POC, to the exclusion of trans individuals, to those who are too butch or too femme, or simply non-conforming to one standard or one side.

Regardless of these obstacles, the DOB was just getting started and their most influential contribution was yet to come. In 1956 the Daughters of Bilitis decided to go public with their group by officially affiliating themselves with the first and largest gay publication in America, One Incorporated. The magazine announced the Daughters of Bilitis in an issue along with the DOB’s stated purpose. While we won’t take time to read the Purpose on this podcast, you can find it posted on our social media pages. To give a quick rundown though, the organization make 4 statements which covered 1. Educating the Variant (a term used for homosexuals) 2. Educating the Public, 3. Participating in Research, and 4. Investigating the Penal Code (fighting to de-criminalize homosexuality). The plug from One brought a surge of interest to the Daughters. That summer Barbara Gittings attended her first DOB meeting in San Francisco. She says of the meeting “There were about a dozen women in the room and I thought – wow! All these lesbians together in one place! I had never seen anything like it.” This shows how isolated the gay community, and particularly the lesbian community, really were from each other. By the way, Barbara would later go on to become very influential in the party and eventual editor of The Ladder.

In October of 1956, one year after the group’s formation, the DOB published their first edition of The Ladder. The magazine was the first nationally distributed publication of its kind. However, it wasn’t the first lesbian newsletter. In 1947 Vice Versa was written and published by “Lisa Ben” with the subtitle “America’s Gayest Magazine”, distributed only in Los Angeles and often by hand rather than mail. Lisa Ben was a pseudonym of course and an acronym for Lesbian, there are varying reports on what her actual name was. What we did find is that she preferred to remain anonymous so we will keep it that way. Vice Versa was a fun little newsletter that instantly became a hit. However, the constant pressure of being outed took its toll on Ben and rumor has it she lost her job and became increasingly paranoid of certain arrest and imprisonment. After just a few short months she closed down her publication. Nevertheless, it left a lasting impression on the people L.A. and a hunger in the lesbian community for something of their own. When the Daughters of Bilitis released their magazine almost 10 years later the suffering Sapphists were relieved.

While the DOB put plenty of energy in researching a name for their organization, the name for their newsletter The Ladder actually derived from the artwork of the first issue. Simple line drawings that showed figures moving towards a ladder in the distance. Phyllis Lyon did a lot of the writing for the magazine, originally under a pseudonym, but eventually coming out in order to encourage other lesbians to do the same. Right by her side as always was Del as editor of the publication. By 1957 the newsletter had 400 subscribers across the country. Letters of support poured in and one prominent recipient, in particular, wrote to the magazine:

“I’m glad as heck that you exist. You are obviously serious people and I feel that women, without wishing to foster any strict separatist notions, homo or hetero, indeed have a need for their own publications and organizations.”

The writer was Lorraine Hansberry, who would later become the first African- American woman and one of the youngest playwrights in history to have a produced on Broadway. She would go on to produce the award-winning “A Raisin in the Sun”.

As the magazine grew so did the DOB and the lesbian movement as a whole. In 1960 the first National Lesbian Convention was held in San Francisco with 200 female attendees. Another visitor was the San Francisco police always putting the taxpayers’ money hard at work as they looked for women in men’s clothing. And of course, public outcry increased as politicians and pastors warned of the “new evil” of lesbians. “You parents of daughters” one politician screamed into a mic “— do not sit back complacently feeling that because you have no boys in your family everything is all right…To enlighten you as to the existence of a Lesbian organization composed of homosexual women, make yourself acquainted with the name Daughters of Bilitis.” However the more the agitators spoke out against the DOB the more attention they drew to the group and the more their numbers swelled. In cities all around the country, in even the most unlikely places, chapters were springing up.

Unfortunately, the old arguments of how much the group should get politically involved sprang up, again and again, causing deeper rifts. By the 1960’s the civil rights and feminist movements were in full swing and the younger lesbians weren’t interested in outdated dress codes, and racial exclusion, or lack of political involvement. In 1963 Barbara Gittings took over The Ladder and brought a new political charge to the magazine. For the first time the cover was replaced with pictures of real lesbian models and eventually, the models even gave consent to be named. Queer women were no longer willing to sit silently to the side and assimilated to societies outdated and sexist requirements. It was also during this time that the DOB would begin to receive an anonymous $3,000 monthly donation from a contributor known only as “Pennsylvania” who would write a check to a different daughter each time. The total sum donated was estimated at $100,000.

Despite their best efforts, the members of the DOB could not come to an agreement on whether to be involved in politics or even which organizations to endorse. As tension in the organization continued to intensify the Daughters of Bilitis finally disbanded in 1970. The president at the time, Rita LaPorte took The Ladder’s mailing list without knowledge or approval and continued to publish the magazine for another 2 years. However, without the monthly donation from “Pennsylvania” Rita and her co-conspirator Barbara Grier soon ran out of money and the magazine officially folded.

Regardless of its flaws and dramatic demise, the Daughters of Bilitis and their infamous publication The Ladder were game changers for the Lesbian Movement and set a precedent for many LGBTQ organizations to follow. And back to that love story about Phyllis and Del, on June 16, 2008, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in San Francisco. They had been together 55 years. A few months later, Del passed away at age 87 with Phyllis right by her side as always.

Marcia M. Gallo, the historian and author of Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement, the resource for most of this podcast, wrote about The Ladder:

“For women who came across a copy in the early days, The Ladder was a lifeline. It was a means of expressing and sharing otherwise private thoughts and feelings, of connecting across miles and disparate daily lives, of breaking through isolation and fear.”


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