The Daughters of Bilitis and the Ongoing Struggle for Lesbian Identity
A look at lesbian activism of yesteryear and today
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Lesbian organizing always seems to take place against the odds. Today, you’re hooped if you try to open a lesbian-exclusive space or start a lesbian organization that doesn’t recognize men with special gender feelings as women. While lesbians in the 1950s didn’t have to deal with these men in such large numbers yet, they had to deal with police raids and discriminatory laws. It was in this milieu that the Daughters of Bilitis was established.
Founded in San Francisco in 1955, the Daughters of Bilitis was the first lesbian rights organization in the United States. This was five years after the establishment of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest organizations for gay men. However, the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis were not aware of other such organizations. In fact, they weren’t initially interested in political organizing and began as more of a social club.
As you might expect of a lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis had four founding couples: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Rose Bamberger and Rosemary Sliepen, Marcia Foster and her partner June, and Noni Frey and her partner Mary.
Martin and Lyon had been looking for other lesbian couples to befriend when they received a call from Bamberger asking if they wanted to join a secret lesbian society. They enthusiastically agreed, and the first official Daughters of Bilitis meeting was held on September 21, 1955.
The name “Daughters of Bilitis” was chosen in honor of the 1894 lesbian erotic poetry collection The Songs of Bilitis by French poet Pierre-Félix Louÿs. Louÿs created Bilitis as a fictional contemporary of Sappho, but the reference was obscure enough that the group members could claim that they were just a poetry club.
Initially, the priority of the group was simply to have a place to meet and dance away from police raids and prying eyes. However, the mission quickly changed to focus on political activism. The members began to meet regularly, and Martin was elected president.
Sliepen, who had the initial idea for the club, wanted to keep it as an undercover social club. Martin, however, wanted to advocate for broader lesbian integration into the wider community like the Mattachine Society was doing for gay men. This made some of the blue-collar members uncomfortable because it was important for them to stay undercover.
Within a year, the original working-class members left to start their own secret lesbian organizations. But the Daughters of Bilitis reorganized and quickly started to grow. One of its first orders of business was to publish a nationally distributed newsletter called The Ladder, of which Lyon was the editor.
The first issue of The Ladder went out in October 1956. Every issue of the newsletter until 1970 came with the following statement of purpose on the inside cover:
1. Education of the variant, with particular emphasis on the psychological and sociological aspects, to enable her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society in all its social, civic and economic implications by establishing and maintaining a library of both fiction and nonfiction on the sex deviant theme; by sponsoring public discussions on pertinent subjects to be conducted by leading members of the legal, psychiatric, religious and other professions; by advocating a mode of behaviour and dress acceptable to society.
2. Education of the public through acceptance first of the individual, leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous conceptions, taboos and prejudices; through public discussion meetings; through dissemination of educational literature on the homosexual theme.
3. Participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychology sociology and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual.
4. Investigation of the penal code as it pertains to the homosexual, proposal of changes to provide an equitable handling of cases involving this minority group, and promotion of these changes through due process of law in the state legislatures.
Note the word “variant” was used in lieu of “lesbian” due to the negative connotations of the latter word at the time. Today, we also have an interesting parallel in that many lesbians are reluctant to use the word due to its pornographic and/or exclusionary connotations.
By 1959, there were Daughters of Bilitis chapters in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Rhode Island. That same year, San Fransisco mayoral candidate Russell Wolden targeted the group in his campaign literature, writing:
You parents of daughters — 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.
Nevertheless, the Daughters of Bilitis held its first national convention in San Fransisco in 1960. A convention was held every two years until 1968.
The 1960s were a time of upheaval and debate in gay rights organizations as a whole. Like the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis were having internal discussions and disagreements about whether the way forward was through conformity and integration or more radical activism. Martin and Lyon also stepped back from the group to become more involved with feminist organizing.
The Daughters of Bilitis ceased functioning as a national organization in 1970, though some local chapters continued until 1995.
Martin and Lyon continued to play an important role in gay rights activism and were married in San Francisco in 2004 when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered city clerks to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Months later, their marriage was voided by the California Supreme Court. However, they were married again in June 2008 after same-sex marriage was legalized in California. Martin passed away two months later, and Lyon died in 2020.
Martin and Lyon were openly out and together as a couple starting in a time period when they had no legal protections and had to deal with deep social disapproval. Not only did they have to navigate such a world themselves, but they started an organization that could help other women do the same. Both admitted in interviews that there was nothing easy about this. In fact, it could be incredibly frightening.
But their openness and hard work paid off. Over half a century, the pair would have seen lesbians pour from their closets and create even more organizations, hold large conferences and festivals, and lead open and happy lives. Unfortunately, all of their successes are bittersweet in light of what lesbians are dealing with today.
Not for one second do I think we have it worse overall than the brave and early pioneers who risked everything socially and professionally to simply live as themselves. But gender ideology has introduced its own set of problems into lesbian lives and communities.
Where lesbians before used to have to take their gatherings underground to avoid police raids, lesbians today have to take their gatherings underground to avoid men who identify as lesbians. Our dating apps are full of men, our lesbian organizations are full of men, and there is hardly a lesbian bar left in North America. The few lesbian bars that are left are regularly accused of transphobia and, if bar owners dare to ask men not to come in and make sexual advances toward lesbians, they can expect to be targeted with violence.
It’s hard to imagine lesbian conferences of the kind that used to occur in the ‘60s and ‘70s or an organization like the Daughters of Bilitis being formed today, not unless they went to great lengths to be inclusive of lesbian-identified men. In fact, I think such an organization would have to actively encourage these men to join in order to escape their wrath.
If you think this is hyperbolic, just consider what happened when Kathleen Stock and Julie Bindel launched The Lesbian Project to represent the specific needs of and give a voice to same-sex attracted women. The organization’s launch event in March 2023 was met with a rabid protest by trans activists who could not abide women meeting on the basis of their sex and sexuality.
It’s hard not to feel bitter that, despite the work of the lesbians who came before us, lesbians today need to hide the true nature of their sexuality in order to not trigger social punishment. Sure, they can call themselves “lesbians” (or better yet, “queer”), but if they acknowledge that they are homosexual or same-sex attracted, or if they reveal any hint of a belief in the reality of biological sex, they risk harassment, threats, violence, social ostracism, professional consequences, and more.
How is it possible that it can seem like the 1950s were a better time to launch a lesbian organization?
But I believe it is important not to get too jaded. The conversation is slowly changing. Or, at least, it’s getting broader, and the activists who can’t stand lesbians gathering under one roof are doing half the work for the cause. They are helping to demonstrate that lesbian spaces, events, and organizations are still important and, with any luck, they might help spur a desperately needed resurgence.
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