Road to Stonewall: Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon and the Daughters of Bilitis


Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded the first lesbian civil rights organization in the U.S., the San Francisco-based Daughters of Bilitis. DOB was named for a book of lesbian poetry written by a lover of Sappho, “Songs of Bilitis.” Martin and Lyon justified the name, writing later, “If anyone asked us, we could always say we belong to a poetry club.”

DOB was formed as an alternative to bar culture. Bars and nightclubs put lesbians at risk of police harassment and public exposure. Martin and Lyon believed lesbians needed their own group, separate from men. They asserted, “Women needed privacy, not only from the watchful eye of the police, but from gaping tourists in the bars and from inquisitive parents and families.”

In October 1955, eight women — four couples — met socially. One of their priorities was to have a place to dance, as same-sex dancing in public was illegal.

In “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America,” lesbian historian Lillian Faderman says of the founding of DOB, “Its very establishment in the midst of witch-hunts and police harassment was an act of courage, since members had to fear that they were under attack, not because of what they did, but merely because of who they were.”

Martin said that she and Lyon wanted alternatives to the increasingly dangerous bar culture for socializing with other women and to meet other lesbians without threat of arrest or exposure. In the early days of DOB, women were met at the door and told they could give their first name — or a pseudonym — and that they had nothing to fear.

What began as a small, secret social club broadened quickly into a group with chapters in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City. DOB also published The Ladder, the first lesbian magazine by and for lesbians, which debuted in 1956 and continued publication until 1972. The Ladder published letters and articles, poems and fiction featuring writers such as Naiad Press cofounder Barbara Grier, novelist Valerie Taylor and award-winning playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

DOB was a cross between the lesbian house parties of the 1940s and what would become the consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s. The meetings were open to all women, not just lesbians. Women questioning their sexual orientation, like Lorraine Hansberry, then married to a man, would do on the pages of The Ladder, could spend time with other lesbians without fear or threat.

The group held dances, discussion groups and conferences and was dedicated to advocacy and research. DOB was both social and political, providing resources to women about being gay and how to access help with divorce, custody and medical and social work concerns. As Martin would later say, she and Lyon were “fighting the church, the couch and the courts” a full decade before the birth of second-wave feminism.

DOB’s manifesto was short and succinct: The group’s purpose was to provide as much information as possible, from a library with fiction and nonfiction on “sex-variant themes” to “public discussions” on life as a lesbian in 1950s America. But DOB was also clear that things had to change and that the group would focus on, “Investigation of the penal code as it pertains to the homosexual, proposal of changes to provide an equitable handling of cases involving this minority group and promotion of these changes through due process of law in the state legislatures.”

A heady concept from the first politically driven lesbian organization, it would be 20 years before the American Psychiatric Association would take homosexuality out of the DSM list of mental illnesses and 40 years before the decriminalizing of sodomy laws, which were used against lesbians in custody battles.

Martin and Lyon were able to propel DOB forward up to and beyond Stonewall, expanding the closeted lesbianism they had been born into with fear and hiding at its roots, to a lesbian consciousness that included and embraced feminism as much as the gay liberation movement and allowed women the freedom to be openly and joyfully lesbian.

DOB was watched from all sides, infiltrated early by the FBI at the height of the witch-hunts targeting homosexuals. In 1959, DOB was made a focal point of the San Francisco mayoral election when Mayor George Christopher, a Republican who hosted HUAC hearings in the City Hall supervisor’s office (and who would later lose the primary campaign for governor in 1966 to then-Democrat Ronald Reagan) was challenged by Russell Wolden. Not to be outdone by Christopher’s embrace of anti-Communist fervor, Wolden asserted that Christopher had made San Francisco a “haven for homosexuals.”

In his campaign literature Wolden named DOB, warning, “You parents of daughters — do not sit back complacently feeling that because you have no boys in your family everything is all right…To enlighten you as to the existence of a Lesbian organization composed of homosexual women, make yourself acquainted with the name Daughters of Bilitis.”

Despite fear mongering, the truth was that local chapters of DOB were relatively small in size, never more than 100 members, but The Ladder was spreading its lesbian message across the country. The first issue included only 174 copies mailed to single women in the San Francisco phone book, but within a year, the mailing list had nearly tripled and women from all over the country were subscribing. DOB had provided a lifeline for lesbians in the days of criminalization.

DOB also focused attention on research by and about lesbians. Rallying empathetic medical and psychiatric professionals brought more attention to the organization, while also broadening the scope. Soon chapters were opening outside the U.S.

DOB’s attention remained on extricating lesbians from feelings of isolation and believing the stories being told about them, most notably that women without men were somehow not real women, that they were, as Freud dismissed them, infantile creatures devoid of real sexuality. Helping women to see themselves as full human beings irrespective of men was a singular job and responsibility, which no other organization in the country, gay or straight, was doing.

As Martin and Lyon would say later in interviews, “If you could only understand the fear! You just can’t begin to realize the fear that was involved and how scared we were. And we [the DOB leadership] were just as scared as everybody else.”

DOB advertised itself as “A Woman’s Organization for the purpose of Promoting the Integration of the Homosexual into Society.” In 1960, the DOB held their first convention in San Francisco, which was so successful that they held one every two years until 1968.  Two hundred lesbians were in attendance and police came to check if women were wearing men’s clothes.

After Stonewall, pressure was put on the organization to be more political and less “nice.” Activist Barbara Gittings, who had founded the New York chapter, was frustrated by the lack of political action when women were still being arrested and fired from jobs for being gay and losing their children in custody battles.

The organization maintained chapters globally until 1995, but it effectively ended in 1972, torn by conflicts over feminism and a newly public lesbian activism, but the critical importance of the work Martin and Lyons did establishing the group in the darkest period of the 1950s and publishing The Ladder  cannot be overstated.

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon met in 1950, moved in together in 1953 and remained together until Martin’s death in 2008. Lyon, now 95, still lives in San Francisco.