Winds of Change: The Daughters of Bilitis and
© Marcia M. Gallo, 2005
We were fighting the church, the couch, and the courts. (1)
Frustrated with their inability to meet other lesbians, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon accepted an invitation to get together with three other female couples in San Francisco in September, 1955. The eight lesbians who gathered that Friday night at Noni and Mary's hoped there would be other women in the Bay area who would want to enjoy parties and conversation in the privacy of one another's homes. Out of their discussions grew the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first national lesbian organization in the U.S. While DOB started as a small, secret social club, by the early 1960s there were chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, as well as San Francisco, and a well-regarded monthly magazine by and for lesbians, The Ladder. Through dances and debates, advocacy and research, conferences and correspondence, the Daughters helped build a significant 20th-century movement for social change.
Out of their discussions grew the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first national lesbian organization in the U.S. While DOB started as a small, secret social club, by the early 1960s there were chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, as well as San Francisco, and a well-regarded monthly magazine by and for lesbians, The Ladder. Through dances and debates, advocacy and research, conferences and correspondence, the Daughters helped build a significant 20th century movement for social change.
They started out in a climate of hostility and fear. In the mid-1950s, all of society's major institutions and opinion-makers—from religious leaders to medical authorities, from judges to the local police and politicians—condemned homosexuality and persecuted gay men and women.
In major cities, there were some bars and restaurants that allowed gay people to gather (and spend money on watered-down drinks), but these places could be and were raided by police at any time. DOB was a response to these conditions and it was many things to many women. First and foremost, it was where a gay or questioning woman could go to meet a new girlfriend, begin to heal a broken heart, or find validation for her life. It was a circle of friends to share good times and bad as well as a network of peer counselors who offered support and guidance. It was a resource center for questions about homosexuality and a nice place to go on Saturday night. DOB was a potent mix of counseling and social services, with a dash of grassroots organizing thrown in. Like its members, it grew and changed with the times.
One of the first things DOB did was create living-room discussions of topics of concern to lesbians, but open to all women. Their sensitivity to the intense fear of the time—a fear that is hard for us to even imagine today—meant that one did not have to declare herself to be a lesbian to join the Daughters of Bilitis. Even the name of their new group provided protection from exposure: they chose the title of an obscure 19th-century erotic poem, "Songs of Bilitis," supposedly written by one of Sappho's lovers and "translated" by Pierre Louys. It was published in the U.S. as part of a paperback collection of Louys' work in 1955. By using a coded name for the new organization, as well as in the use of pseudonyms by many members, the Daughters utilized secrecy while pursuing a strategy of lifting the veil of silence surrounding lesbian life in the mid-twentieth century.
...If we ever hope to win our battle, we must fight.
First, we must unshackle ourselves from fear, for it
alone is our omnipresent enemy... (2)
Del Shearer, Chicago, 1961
DOBís Chicago chapter was organized in late 1961 and officially chartered in 1962. "Del Shearer" helped get the chapter started and led it until 1965; she also served as a national vice-president of DOB. Among the early members of Chicago DOB were noted lesbian poet and writer Valerie Taylor ("Velma Tate"), a frequent contributor to DOB's monthly magazine The Ladder, as well as sister Midwesterners Jeannette Howard Foster and Barbara Grier ("Gene Damon"). Close cooperation with other Chicago homophile activists—such as pioneering civil rights attorney Pearl Hart—were a hallmark of the group, as was its conscious outreach to black communities and newspapers. (3)
The Chicago Daughters worked to increase lesbian visibility in the electronic media. In 1964, "Miss Shearer" was the only woman of five participants in a "lively two-hour exchange" televised on Chicago's WBKB in April and reported in the October issue of The Ladder. (4) It was one of the first televised discussions featuring "known" homosexuals. "Del Shearer" articulated the homophile movement's perspective:
Organizations like Daughters of Bilitis want to see the homosexual move out of his cubbyhole and join the rest of society as a responsible person. Also, they want to get society to accept the homosexual as a person. (5)
But in a 1965 letter to DOB's Governing Board, Shearer resigned. She took the opportunity to express her strong disagreement "at this time or in the very near future" with the issue of picketing by homophile groups which was then being organized by ECHO (East Coast Homophile Organizations). She called it "ridiculous if not utter insanity," expressing her concern that homophile activists had not yet adequately influenced "the reflection of custom and public policy." Shearer also urged that DOB withdraw from ECHO to protect DOB's "separate identity." She ended her letter with "I would much prefer to see D.O.B. small and sound than great and vulnerable."
Shearer's words were prophetic. As the Daughters in the mid-1960s debated whether, when, and how to engage in growing gay rights protests and coalitions, their involvement in the homophile movement shifted. The issue of feminism—always part of DOB's agenda—sharpened as well. Within a few years, some members were urging that DOB join the newly-resurgent women's movement and lessen its involvement with male-dominated gay rights groups. Further, despite the existence of more than a dozen local chapters, by 1968 the national organization was weakening. There were internal disputes over local autonomy and initiative. Two DOB leaders circulated a proposal to disband the national board and form a loose federation of chapters under a "United Daughters of Bilitis, Inc." banner.
In the summer of 1970, when then-editor Grier and DOB president Rita La Porte severed The Ladder from DOB so that Grier could publish it privately, it seemed that there was no longer any need for a national structure. DOB abolished its governing board and gave its chapters the freedom to continue their work on the local level. With The Ladder gone (it lasted only two more years), the Los Angeles DOB chapter soon developed its local newsletter into a new national lesbian magazine, Lesbian Tide. It became the second groundbreaking publication to be produced by the Daughters.
Some DOB chapters—notably, New York and San Francisco—kept organizing throughout the 1970s and the DOB group in Boston was active until 1995. Outside the U.S., the Minorities Research Group (MRG), founded by Esme Langley and other British lesbians in 1963 and actively supported by DOB, continued to work on lesbian rights throughout the 1960s. Its magazine, Arena Three, was, like The Ladder, distributed internationally. In 1969, a DOB chapter organized in Melbourne by Marion Paull and Claudia Pearce was the first "openly homosexual political organization" in Australia. (6)
The small secret San Francisco social club had helped launch an international lesbian movement. The Daughters of Bilitis stands today as an important example of women's organizing during oppressive times. Through its leadership in the predominantly male homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s, its unique publication The Ladder, and its network of local chapters, DOB played a crucial role in creating lesbian identity, visibility, institutions, and political strategies from 1955 to 1970. In addition, the Daughters helped to broaden the very definition of social change to include female sexuality.
(1) Author's interview with Del Martin, San Francisco, Calif., September 1997.
(2) Letter signed by "D.S., Illinois" ("Del Shearer"), Readers Respond, The Ladder Vol. 5, No. 7 (April 1961): 23.
(3) Eric Marcus, "Shirley Willer: One Angry Nurse," Making History, 128–131.
(4) W. Mitchell, "Special Report – 'Off The Cuff,'" The Ladder Vol. 9 No. 1 (October 1964): 9–12.
(6) Graham Willett, Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Australia (St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 2000), 36–37.
Marcia M. Gallo received her doctorate in history in 2004 from the City University of New York Graduate Center. Her book based on her dissertation, "Different Daughters: The Daughters of Bilitis and the Roots of Lesbian and Feminist Organizing, 1955–1970,Ē will be published in 2006 by Carroll & Graf, Avalon Publishing Group.
Ms. Gallo will speak at a program celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Daughters of Bilitis at Gerber/Hart Library on Sunday, September 18, 2005, at 4 pm.