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The Daughters Of Bilitis: America’s First Lesbian Civil And Political Rights Organisation

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The Daughters of Bilitis, also known as the Daughters and the DOB was the first lesbian civil and political rights organisation in the United States of America.

It was formed in 1955 in San Francisco and began as an alternative to lesbian bars, as lesbian bars were frequently raided and subjected to police harassment. It educated people about female homosexuality and taught LGBTQ+ history.

Why The Daughters Of Bilitis Was Formed

In 1950, the State Department declared that homosexuals as security risks as they believed them to be vulnerable to blackmail. Subsequently, repressive acts of discrimination began taking place.

  1. Government employees suspected of being queer were dismissed in what was known as the “Lavender Scare”.
  2. Police raids were conducted on gay and lesbian bars.
  3. Laws that prohibited cross-dressing for men and women were enacted.

In 1995, gay rights activists and couple Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon spoke to another queer couple about how they did not know any other lesbians. The queer men introduced them to a lesbian couple, and one of them suggested the creation of a social club.

By October, eight women began meeting regularly. Since dancing with a person of the same gender in a public place was illegal, one of the group’s priority was to have a place to dance. They realised that they should be an organised group and elected Del Martin as president. Their focus was educating women about lesbians and reducing self-hatred and internalised homophobia caused by the heteronormative society.

Origins Of The Name

Bilitis was coined by French poet Pierre Louÿs in his work The Songs of Bilitis. The fictional character Bilitis was a friend of Sappho, the prolific poet from the island of Lesbos. Over the years Sappho became a symbol of lesbianism. In fact, the words sapphic and lesbian derive from her name and the name of her home island.

Bilitis was chosen to be part of the name for its obscurity, as even the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, Martin and Lyon did not know the meaning.

The word daughters was chosen to associate the organisation with other associations like the Daughters of the American Revolution. Martin and Lyon wrote that “If anyone asked us, we could always say we belong to a poetry club.”

Mission Of Daughters Of Bilitis

The mission statement of the Daughters of Bilitis was to inform people about female homosexuality. Martin and Lyon created The Ladder, a newsletter that they would distribute to as women members of the group knew. In 1960, the Daughters held their first convention. Two hundred women and the San Francisco police attended the convention. The police came to check whether the women were wearing men’s clothes, and Martin brought them inside to show that the women were not.

As a national organisation, the Daughters of Bilitis shut down in 1970, but some of the local chapters of the organisation continued until 1995. The Ladder had run out of funds and shut down by 1972.

Impact

The Daughters of Bilitis inspired the creation of several other lesbian and feminist organisations. Historian Martin Meeker described the impact as “The DOB succeeded in linking hundreds of lesbians across the country with one another and gathering them into a distinctly modern communication network.”