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Daughters of Bilitis: From dancing to the first lesbian organization

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Daughters of Bilitis

Daughters of Bilitis: From dancing to the first lesbian organization

By the 1950s, women living together were more common– though they still hid the true nature of their relationships. It was around that time that the first lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, was formed.

This came about as World War II was the ground zero for a lot of social and cultural norms. When the world went to war, women started discovering themselves– especially through their relationship with other women.

Daughters of Bilitis: The start of the dance

For founders and lesbian activist couple Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, it was about forming a social club where they could meet other lesbian couples and go dancing with them.

In an era when it was illegal for same-sex couples to be seen dancing in public, Martin and Lyon said: “Women needed privacy…not only from the watchful eye of the police, but from gaping tourists in the bar and from inquisitive parents and families.”

As such, the couple founded the Daughters of Bilitis on September 21, 1955 in San Francisco. They took their name from Bilitis, the work of French poet Pierre Louys– The Songs of Bilitis (1894)– about a fictional character who lived with Sappho on the Isle of Lesbos.

Daughters of Bilitis during a socially repressive period

From social dancing, they began to meet regularly and decided to organize as a group. Electing Del Martin as president, they began discussing the issues lesbians faced in a period when same-sex relationships were shunned.

More importantly, the group knew the tendency of their lot to wallow in depression and self-loathing. Because of this, they first became a support group for other lesbians.

Four years later, in 1959, the organization had chapters in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Rhode Island.

Daughters of Bilitis publishes The Ladder

Given that in the ’50s, female homosexuality was rarely talked about and there was lack of information on the matter, the organization decided to make this the mission of the Daughters of Bilitis.

However, one of their biggest hurdles was that they weren’t allowed to advertise about their group and their meetings in local publications. To side-step this, Martin and Lyon– with their background in journalism– started printing a newsletter.

This became The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication. (This was also the precursor for other lesbian publications like Lesbian News! – The Editor)

In the beginning, their writers used pseudonyms. Even Lyon edited the magazine as “Ann Ferguson.” But she soon dropped this as part of their campaign to urge women to come out.

Likewise, one of the goals of their magazine was printed on every issue of The Ladder: ” Education of the public…leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous taboos and prejudices…”

Daughters of Bilitis and the changing times

Sadly, the organization was disbanded in 1970 as the older, more conservative members found themselves at odds with the radicalism of the younger members.

However, Lyon and Martin went on to continue their political activism and in 2008, Lyon and Martin became the first lesbian couple to marry in San Francisco.

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