Daughters of Bilitis

Being a lesbian in the 1950’s was a very isolated life. Most gay people kept their sexuality a secret; if they were outted, they risked losing friends, family, their job, and possibly their life. Among this oppressive atmosphere, a California couple created a secret lesbian society that helped spark the LGBT movement. Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, a lesbian couple from San Francisco, founded The Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian civil rights organization, as well as its magazine, The Ladder, in 1955. They did this to connect to other lesbians outside of the bar scene, as well as work towards the acceptance and de-stigmatization of lesbians. Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin The Ladder’s name was inspired by its first cover art. The founders believed that this symbolized their hopes for the magazine as a place for lesbians to gather and ascend to a brighter, but unknown, future. The Ladder grew to a national readership, and in its 16 year run, connected lesbians in a time when being outted as gay was social suicide. The Daughters of Bilitis gained chapters in many cities, and sparked social activism. Lesbians began to see themselves not as sick or strange, but as normal people. They felt a new sense of empowerment; if we have the power to make a national magazine, they thought, why stop there? Barbara Gittings, founder of the New York chapter of DoB and the editor of The Ladder from 1963 to 1966, organized the first public demonstrations for gay equality. After the Stonewall riots of 1969, the demonstrations became the New York City Pride Parade. On the other side of the country, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin worked to change laws criminalizing homosexuality. The Daughters of Bilitis was not without its problems. The organization espoused a conservative stance, encouraging the women to wear feminine clothing to fight stereotypes and gain mainstream acceptance. The DoB also focused mostly on white, middle-class lesbians, limiting its available membership. I chose this topic because I wanted to research something in LGBT history. I thought it would be interesting to see what it was like to live in the past as a lesbian, when it was much less socially acceptable to be out. It was not very difficult to find secondary sources on my topic, but primary sources were very rare. I originally focused on the Daughters of Bilitis’ magazine, The Ladder, because I thought I could find digitized versions of the magazines themselves. However, none were available, so I expanded my topic to the Daughters of Bilitis in general, and was able to find some more material. I think LGBT history before Stonewall is often erased and ignored in media, from textbooks to the GLAAD website. I feel like the gay rights movement is seen as a very recent thing that just happened. I want to show that activists have been working towards civil rights for LGBT people for a long time.

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