Daughters of the revolution
Lesbian rights' elder icons talk about changing the world
The first lesbian group in the U.S. turns 50 this year, and its two most famous members will come to Chicago to blow out the candles. On Saturday 1, the gala "Making History, Honoring Our Heroes" celebrates pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.
Martin and Lyon weren't looking to change the world when they joined the Daughters of Bilitis, the lesbian organization they cofounded in 1955 in San Francisco—they were looking to meet other women.
The name Daughters of Bilitis is taken from a 1930s poem by Pierre Louys called "The Songs of Bilitis," a narrative rooted in sapphic legendry that takes place on the Isle of Lesbos. Suggested by another member, neither Martin nor Lyon had ever heard of it. "[The] thought was that nobody would know about the poem except us, which wasn't really true because we didn't know about it, either," Lyon quips.
But by using an obscure name, the women could find a way to conduct their meetings without hassle. "It would sound like a women's lodge...and that would be another way we'd get around it," Martin says. "You got to remember this was 1955 and this was going to be a very secret organization," Lyon adds.
They were initially approached about DOB by a friend. At the time, Martin and Lyon had been together two years, but they struggled to find other lesbians. "She asked us if we wanted to join her and two other couples and start a secret society for lesbians, and we said, 'Of course!' We're going to meet five more lesbians we didn't know," Lyon says with a laugh.
Their first meeting was in October 1955. Three additional women came. "We were at one of the other member's houses and we realized suddenly that Del and I were the two that were left in the living room with these three women. The other six apparently had to go make coffee. It takes six lesbians to go make coffee!" Lyon says. Fearing exposure, the women declined membership.
DOB flourished, however. A newsletter called The Ladder was created, and eventually auditoriums were rented to hold the growing numbers. "There were three big things that we were fighting in the early years: The fact that we were considered to be illegal, immoral and sick," Lyon says. At a meeting, a lawyer might visit and tell the women their rights as homosexuals, or doctors would come and tell them they were not sick.
Charter chapters followed in other cities, and DOB eventually went national. However, as members became split over issues, and the The Ladder (which ended in 1972) began to enter the territory of the women's movement, it was decided in 1970 that the organization as a national entity would dissolve. By then, the Stonewall Riots had occurred and the Council on Religion and the Homosexual had formed, which brought churches into the gay community. "[Church members] would bring us by their congregation and give them a chance to meet some of us," Martin says. "They would see that we were human beings and not monsters. They were shocked."
Over the years, Martin and Lyon have remained active. They authored the book Lesbian/Woman in 1972, and Martin wrote Battered Wives in 1976. Perhaps their biggest thrill during came February 12, 2004, when they became the first gay couple to be married in the United States.
"It felt pretty damn good," Lyon says. "The ability to get married to a person of the same sex is the ultimate step that needs to be taken to make us first-class citizens. As long as we can't marry...we're second-class citizens."
Meet Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon at the gala "Making History, Honoring Our Heros" on Saturday 1.