*originally posted October 18, 2009
The Daughters of Bilitis [DOB], founded in 1955 in San Francisco, California, was the first national lesbian political and social organization in the United States. It was founded by a group of eight lesbians, most notably Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, as a sort of social club designed to discuss issues important to the lesbian community. It also gave the women a safe place to meet, and dance; it was illegal for women to do so in public bars.
The name, Daughters of Bilitis, was taken from "Songs Of Bilitis" a lesbian themed song cycle by the French poet Pierre Louÿs, in which Bilitis was seen as a resident of the isle of Lesbos alongside Sappho. It was also chosen because it was a deliberately obscure name, and, according to Phyllis Lyon, "no one would know what it meant."
Times were different back then. Meetings were secret so the women weren't in fear of arrest and recrimination.
In the beginning, DOB was a more of a social club, influenced by the Mattachine Society, a gay men's group, which formed in Los Angeles in 1951. The DOB allied itself with Mattachine and a popular gay magazine of the time, ONE, Inc., which was largely staffed and edited by members of the Mattachine Society.
Soon, however, DOB became more politically oriented, and the group’s activities included hosting public forums on homosexuality, offering support to isolated, married, and mothering lesbians, and participating in research activities. The DOB collected some of the first statistics on lesbians in the United States by mailing surveys to the readers of The Ladder in 1958 and again in 1964, and compiling the results of what was returned.
Both Lyon and Martin were invaluable driving forces behind the DOB’s successes. Martin was the first president and Lyon became the editor of the DOB's monthly magazine, The Ladder, launched in October 1956 and between the two of them spent most of their free time and money invested in keeping the DOB alive and healthy.
The two women, having a dominant influence in the DOB’s activities, had a conservative focus and chose not to pursue overtly political or militant material or actions. They advised conformity to the straight mainstream, and discouraged women from cross-dressing, embracing butch-femme identities, or any other activity that would make them too visibly different. Martin and Lyon wanted to blend in, not stand out from, society, as a way to make inroads and gain acceptance.
The organization grew quickly and by 1958 there were DOB chapters along both coasts and in Chicago and other major cities. Still, the DOB never seemed to attract the kinds of numbers and members as gay male organizations. There are several possible reasons for DOB's small membership, including classism. The DOB reached out primarily to white, middle-class women, the very people who had most to lose should they be identified as lesbian at a time when police harassment and loss of jobs were common fates for open lesbians. At the same time, however, its assimilationist message failed to appeal to women of different backgrounds who may have embraced a more radical perspective.
While the Daughters Of Bilitis presented itself as an exclusively lesbian organization from the beginning and stressed the need for attention to women's specific needs, it was during the women's movement of the mid-1960s that the group's focus began to change. Under the new leadership of Rita Laporte and Barbara Grier, the group developed a more radical lesbian-feminist flavor to the organization; and, under the editorship of Barbara Gittings, The Ladder became more militant.
The shift from lesbian rights to women's rights conflicted with Del Martin's and Phyllis Lyon's original intent for DOB and, after extensive disagreements and a disastrous conference in 1970, Laporte and Grier usurped the Ladder's subscription list to begin publishing the magazine independently.
The debate over whether to become a part of the mainstream feminist movement--many of whose members were openly anti-lesbian--or to continue concentrating on homophile issues proved devastating for the Daughters of Bilitis.
The organization began to crumble shortly after Laporte and Grier's coup and, while individual chapters struggled on as autonomous organizations, the national DOB folded, and the Ladder, now an independent women's liberation magazine, could not maintain sufficient financial support to continue. It ceased publication in 1972, having reached print runs of almost 3,800 copies.
The inability of the Daughters of Bilitis to survive the tumultuous 1960s does not diminish its importance in LGBT history. For many lesbians the Daughters Of Bilitis provided a crucial space in which they could meet outside of the traditional bar scene. Its members fought for legal reform and gay civil rights, along with more research into lesbian life, and helped to foster understanding about lesbian lives both within and outside of their community.
On This Day In LGBT History
October 18, 1907 – 2,000 people attended a debate on the repeal of Paragraph 175, Germany’s sodomy law.
October 18, 1977 – Citizens United to Protect Our Children, an organization in Portland OR, announced they had failed to get enough signatures to get a recall election of Mayor Neil Goldschmidt after he declared Portland Gay Pride Day.
October 18, 1990 – Former Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell declared that he believed he made a mistake by voting to uphold Georgia’s sodomy laws in the 1986 Bowers v Hardwick case.
October 18, 1990 – Three white supremacists were convicted of conspiring to blow up a gay bar in Boise, Idaho.
October 18, 1991 – Admiral Frank B Kelso, chief of naval operations, announced that the explosion of the USS Iowa which killed forty-seven men had been proven not to have been caused by a wrongful intentional act and apologized to the family of Clayton Hartwig. Hartwig had been accused of intentionally causing the blast as an act of suicide following the breakup of a homosexual affair. (It was not proven that he was homosexual.)