Lesbian Liberation Begins

Published in: November-December 2012 issue.


Editor’s Note: A women’s counterpart to Harry Hay’s article in the Winter 1995 issue was provided by longtime partners Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who deny having founded the Daughters of Bilitis at the top of this article, but who were surely responsible for its early survival. It is worth remembering that 1994 was the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, so reminiscing about the early gay and lesbian movement was much in the air at this time. Of course, both Mattachine and DOB were founded long before 1969, which is much to the point. The GLBT movement really did start on the West Coast, but as both articles make clear, they remained largely secret organizations whose members avoided overt political activity.

Del Martin (1921–2008) and Phyllis Lyon (b. 1924) were the first same-sex couple to be married in the state of California, the second time officially, on June 16 (Bloomsday), 2008, during the brief window of marriage equality there before the passage of Proposition 8.


WE ARE erroneously given credit as the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco in 1955. It wasn’t even our idea. A young Filipina immigrant envisioned a club for lesbians here in the States that would give us an opportunity to meet and socialize (and especially to dance) outside of the gay bars that were frequently raided by police. Meeting in each others’ homes provided us with privacy and a sense of safety from the police and gawking tourists in the bars. Personally, our motivation was simply to meet other lesbians. There were eight of us in the beginning: four couples, four blue-collar and four white-collar workers, two lesbian mothers, and two women of color.

This new secret club, which would later become the first national lesbian organization, was named the Daughters of Bilitis to sound like just another women’s lodge. Bilitis (pronounced Bil-E-tis) came from The Songs of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs, a long narrative love poem in which Bilitis was cast as a contemporary of Sappho on the Isle of Lesbos. Presumably lesbians would know what the name meant. If anyone else asked, we could say we belonged to a Greek poetry club. In 1958, when renting our first office suite on O’Farrell Street across from Macy’s, Del told the building manager that DOB was “an organization concerned with the sociological problems of single women.”

Del Martin and Phyllis LyonThe Daughters began in a climate of fear, rejection, and oppression, the aftermath of Congressional hearings and witch hunts by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was relentless in “exposing” Communists and homosexuals in government. Lesbians and gay men, if found out, were subject to reprisals from all quarters of society: employers, police, military, government, family, and friends. After bar raids, police often informed employers or gave lists of arrestees to the newspapers. Parents disowned their adult children. Minors were sent to a shrink or were institutionalized and given shock (or other) treatments. Purges occurred periodically on military bases. Just having “tendencies” or being friends with lesbians could get you a court martial and a dishonorable discharge. Many people lost licenses and their professional careers. Lesbian mothers were denied custody of their children and even visitation rights in some cases. The law, religion, and psychiatry played prominent roles in the cruel treatment of lesbians and gay men by society and family. There was no sense of community as exists today. Lesbians were isolated and separated—and scared.

By 1956, we found that there were two other organizations: the Mattachine Society in San Francisco and ONE, Inc. in Los Angeles. They welcomed DOB into the “homophile” movement, but chided us for being separatists. Both Mattachine and ONE were open to both sexes but were overwhelmingly male in membership and program. They were glad to see women getting involved.

Plagued by people’s fear of having their names on mailing or membership lists, DOB was constantly hampered in its outreach. Along with parties and discussion groups, the early days involved a great deal of peer counseling to help overcome the stigma of being branded illegal, immoral, and sick by a hostile society. After its first year, DOB had only fifteen members, although more attended parties and discussions. The group started publishing The Ladder and conducting public forums in a downtown auditorium.

The “1st Rung” of The Ladder was published by the Daughters “from the city of many moods,” San Francisco, in October 1956, with Phyllis as editor. It included the four-fold purpose of DOB: 1) education of the variant to enable her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society; 2) education of the public to break down erroneous conceptions, taboos, and prejudices; 3) participation in research projects to further knowledge about the homosexual; 4) investigation of the penal code and promotion of changes through state legislatures.

The second issue focused on convincing what few readers The Ladder had that “Your Name is Safe!” An editorial cited the 1953 decision of the Supreme Court (U.S. v. Rumely) upholding the right of a publisher to refuse to reveal the names of purchasers of reading material to a Congressional investigating committee. That issue was mailed to every woman attorney listed in the telephone directory. The response was overwhelming: “Take me off your mailing list or I will report you to the postal authorities.”

There was one positive response from Attorney Juliet Lowenthal. She and her attorney husband Morris had fought the Black Cat bar case (Stoumen v. Reilly) all the way to the California Supreme Court to determine that homosexuals had the right to congregate in public places. Later, when the Lowenthals submitted an amicus brief in the case against Mary’s First and Last Chance lesbian bar in Oakland (Vallerga v. Munro), they cited and filed the September and October 1958 issues of The Ladder with the District Court of Appeals. The “misconduct” in the state’s case against the bar owners consisted of women dressed in masculine attire, a “female with her arms round another female, kissing themselves on the cheeks and necks, and a waitress calling an undercover policewoman a ‘cute little bitch.’” The case went all the way to the State Supreme Court, which found that this conduct was not “inimical to the public welfare or morals,” but merely an indication that the clientele was homosexual. The Court also observed that homosexuals should not be expected to exhibit a higher standard of conduct than that expected of other (heterosexual) citizens.

From the beginning, DOB was engaged in peer counseling and internal discussion groups to allay fears and build self-esteem. Holding “public” forums allowed lesbians and some gay and transgendered men to attend without committing themselves. Professional speakers included attorneys who explained the law and told us what our rights were and what to do in case of arrest. Those in the mental health professions refuted the sickness theory and promoted self-acceptance. Our contention was that once you accepted yourself, regardless of what others had to say, you could cope better in a hostile society. The professionals who were among society’s decision makers gave us the validation we needed then.

In February 1957, the Daughters of Bilitis proudly announced that it had become a full-fledged non-profit corporation under the laws of the state of California. “It was a signal of our legality and our permanency as an organization,” reported The Ladder.

As representatives of DOB, we attended the 1959 Mattachine convention in Denver, where Del appeared on a panel and expressed her annoyance at always having to defend DOB as a separate and distinct women’s organization. She pointed out that both coed groups assumed that whatever was said about homosexuality included lesbians, just like the generic term “he.” Del said, “Lesbians are not satisfied to be auxiliary members or second-class homosexuals. … One of Mattachine’s aims is that of sexual equality. May I suggest that you start with the lesbian? This would certainly be a ‘new frontier in acceptance of the homophile’ [theme of the convention].”

This was also the convention at which a new member, William Brandhove, hoodwinked the Society into passing a resolution praising San Francisco Mayor George Christopher and Police Chief Thomas Cahill for an enlightened administration in “sociological problem areas.” Brandhove claimed the resolution had been mailed to him by members of the S.F.P.D., who requested its passage. We knew there was something wrong and reminded Mattachine members that this was an election year and asked what earthly use it would be to Christopher to gain the endorsement of the Mattachine Society? It wasn’t. Brandhove was a plant for Christopher’s opponent, Assessor Russ Wolden. The story broke in the weekly San Francisco Progress in a front-page story, “Sex Deviates Make SF Headquarters.” Thus DOB might dissolve out of fear. The meeting was heavily attended, and the sentiment was overwhelming to stand our ground and to get a special edition of The Ladder out and onto the newsstands (for the first time). The mailing and membership lists were removed from the office and placed under a blanket in the back of our station wagon for the duration of the crisis.

The daily papers mentioned the story, noted Mattachine’s slander suit, ran a few letters, and then dropped it completely. In the meantime, a four-page pamphlet was distributed door-to-door to remind parents of daughters of the existence of the Daughters of Bilitis. Christopher, who was no favorite of lesbians and gays, was re-elected. However, some 9,000 people who went to the polls did not vote for anyone for mayor. What we learned was that it was helpful to have a liaison with the gay male organizations so as to be aware of what they were up to. We also learned—and it has proven to be so in later years— that in times of crisis we all pull together and more of us come out.

By 1960, DOB had chapters in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. It had established a book and record service. The L.A. chapter produced a 45-rpm record under the DOB label featuring Lisa Ben singing parodies of “Cruising Down the Boulevard” and “Frankie and Johnnie.” DOB also carried “3 Oboli to Aphrodite,” the Songs of Bilitis dramatized by “Cherise,” a pseudonym for a very well-known stage, radio, and screen actress.

The first national conference of the Daughters of Bilitis was held in San Francisco in 1960 in the penthouse of the Whitcomb Hotel on Market Street. Although the Mattachine Society was an avowed part of the homophile movement, it had always been billed as an organization “interested in the problems of homosexuality.” But DOB’s publicity release advertised “the nation’s first Lesbian Convention.” Hal Call, Mattachine’s president, wrote that under those circumstances, he felt most Mattachine members—99 percent male—might hesitate to attend. Jaye Bell, president of the San Francisco host chapter of DOB, replied: “If the members of Mattachine were to dress properly and act with decorum no one would take them for Lesbians.”

Noting that a few clergymen had attended Mattachine and ONE conferences as individuals but not as representatives of a church, DOB sent a letter to the Northern California Council of Churches asking for an official speaker so as to develop a dialog with the church itself. Some weeks later, a reply came from the executive director apologizing for the delay: “We never had a request of this nature before, and quite frankly, we didn’t know how to deal with it.” The Reverend Fordyce Eastburn, representing the California Episcopal Diocese, was DOB’s luncheon speaker. He said that homosexuals would be accepted in the church, but since homosexuality is a sin, we would be expected to change—either that or embrace celibacy. That was an opening. In 1967 the report of the Joint Committee on Homosexuality, appointed by Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike and on which Don Lucas of Mattachine and Del of DOB had served, was approved by the Diocesan Council. The Committee’s recommendations included: endorsement of homosexual law reform, denouncement of entrapment of homosexuals by police and Alcoholic Beverage Control detectives, and the need for a broad sex education program for clergy and laity alike.

The DOB biennial conventions proved to be excellent vehicles for publicity focused on lesbians. The first convention in San Francisco received good press notices. It drew a visit from the Homosexual Detail of the San Francisco Police Department. The two men were primarily interested in finding out if the organization advocated dressing in clothing of the opposite sex. This being our first public appearance, the women were all wearing skirts.

During the second convention, in L.A. in 1962, Terry, president of the host chapter and self-employed, gained nationwide coverage when she was interviewed on television by Paul Coates. By the third, in New York City in 1964, The New York Times had relented on its taboo on the subject and sent a reporter. At the fourth, again in San Francisco, in 1966, the convention opened the “Ten Days in August,” a concentrated series of meetings including the second meeting of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (nacho). Phyllis, as publicity director, pulled out all the stops. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a four-column article headlined “S.F. Greets Daughters.” The Convention and Visitors Bureau provided help with registration to atone for leaving DOB out of the listing of upcoming conventions. On-the-hour spot announcements were made on two radio stations. Metromedia News taped some of the highlights of the program, and by afternoon Judge Joseph G. Kennedy’s luncheon speech was on the air. Television stations did taped interviews and newspapers covered the event, which featured speakers from all branches of San Francisco’s city government (including an official representing Mayor John Shelley, albeit the public health director).

At the 1960 convention, DOB presented a report on a survey of its members and subscribers to The Ladder conducted in an attempt to get bona fide researchers to study lesbians. DOB’s premise was that lesbians would not be that different from other women except for the choice of life partner. We felt the survey would dispel some of the myths and provide grounds for changing attitudes. DOB members and other lesbians volunteered as guinea pigs for a number of psychological and personality studies over the years.

By 1968, Florence Conrad (née Jaffy), DOB’s research director, decided it was time to find out if there had been any change in attitudes in the helping professions. Knowing that psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists were not likely to respond to a DOB questionnaire, Florence went to Dr. Joel Fort, director of the Center for Special Problems, an agency of San Francisco’s Public Health Department. With the help of Drs. Fort and Claude M. Steiner, a questionnaire was developed, printed at DOB’s expense, and, under the auspices of the Center, sent out to a random sample of 153 Bay Area mental health professionals. The 147 respondents had practiced psychotherapy for an average of fourteen years, and 88 percent were in private practice and had treated homosexuals.

The results were startling: 99 percent opposed laws treating homosexual acts between consenting adults as criminal; 98 percent thought there should be no prohibition against homosexuals in civil service jobs; 88 percent felt that a homosexual orientation should not disqualify a person from serving in the armed services; 73 percent held that homosexuals should not be barred from security-sensitive positions; and 92 percent said homosexuals should not be restricted from the teaching profession. Almost two-thirds said homosexuality should not be categorized as an “illness,” and 97 percent said they would not try to change a homosexual patient into a heterosexual but would pursue other goals: self-acceptance, self-assertiveness, and improved interpersonal relationships. So pro-homosexual were the results that it took almost three years to find a publisher (Psychological Reports in October 1971).

DOB had been criticized by male-dominated groups for pursuing this research. They said all we had to do was declare “We are not sick.” We pointed out that wouldn’t change societal attitudes. The above results vindicated DOB and played a role in the eventual removal of homosexuality per se from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Gay male organizations in the 50’s and 60’s dealt mostly with criminal law and the excesses of law enforcement: gay bar raids; sex in public toilets and parks; entrapment by undercover officers; and police brutality. DOB shared their advocacy of the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code, which would make sexual activity between consenting adults in private no longer a concern of the law. But the Daughters, the only national lesbian organization at the time, concentrated more on civil law and family issues.

In January 1957, DOB announced the formation of a group to discuss the problems of “raising children in a deviant relationship.” Suffragist Rhoda Kellogg, director of Golden Gate Nursery School, Eleanor van Leeuwen, specialist in parent-education for the San Francisco Unified School District, and Faith Rossiter, psychotherapist, participated as discussion moderators, lending assistance on the basis of their knowledge and experience. In her report of the first meeting, Jean Peterson, writing in The Ladder, pointed out the “anything which strays from the sincere feeling or true values can be said to be deviant, and there can definitely be deviant heterosexuals as well as deviant homophiles. The emotional stability of parents will determine the background of the child. Love and security overshadow all other factors. If a child knows love, gives love and receives love, and knows he is wanted, chances are he will be normal and well-adjusted.”

The last national conference of the DOB was held in New York City in 1970. Since Rita LaPorte, then national president of DOB, feared she would not be re-elected, and Gene Damon (Barbara Grier) feared she would not be re-appointed by the new board of directors, they stole the mailing list and, in effect, The Ladder. Without a magazine to publish, the convention decided to dissolve the national structure. Chapters would be autonomous, could publish their own magazine, and hopefully would still come together biennially. The Ladder, without an organization behind it, went out of business in 1972.


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