Telling Our Stories: The Daughters of Bilitis

By Lupie Janos

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon are first lesbian couple to be married in California.

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon are first lesbian couple to be married in California.

We made it. 2021 holds all the promise and clarity we expected of 2020. If things keep moving in a positive direction, we will even celebrate PRIDE in person.

Acronyms fill our lives, am I right? LGBTQ, IG, LOL, DTB, WNBA; but what about those that have multiple meanings, such as this column – SOS, or even DOB? Most people think: date of birth. Fewer people know that the acronym also stands for a group of brave women who made up the first lesbian civil and political rights group in the United States, The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB).

Picture this: it is the 1950s, World War II is over, and the country is finding a “new normal” – sound familiar? Women have scarcely had the right to vote for 20 years. They have joined the workforce and are beginning to dismantle the patriarchy. Abortions were illegal and segregation was commonplace. Contention between the United States and the USSR led to a nuclear arms race and the Cold War.

This cold war era created an anti-communist sentiment in the United States and gave the government free reign to register and track “subversive” groups. The State Department declared homosexuals one such “subversive” group; deeming gay people a security risk. So began a period in our history when public outings, bar raids, and the risk losing one’s lively hood were all at stake for the mere suspicion of being gay.

Sodomy laws and conversion therapy bred fear in our community. Yet, small factions organized to create safe spaces, a sense of community and form the beginnings of our modern equality movement. The DOB, or the Daughters as they are sometimes referred called, were one such faction forming in San Francisco in 1955. It was an organization conceived as a social alternative to lesbian bars, providing a social outlet for its members and equally important, a place to dance.

Why Bilitis? It is the name given to a fictional lesbian contemporary of Sappho by the French poet Pierre Louys in his 1894 work The Songs of Bilitis. “Daughters” was meant to evoke American pride and social association to groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, along with three other couples, founded the DOB. From the start they had a clear focus to educate other women about lesbians, and reduce their self-loathing brought on by the repressive social constructs of the day.

As the DOB gained members, their focus shifted to providing support to queer women who were afraid to come out. The DOB educated queer women about gay rights and history for about fourteen years. They were an educational resource for lesbians, gay men, researchers and mental health professionals. Although their existence waned and eventually faded, these women were true trailblazers that laid the foundation for the road many of us are still travelling on. They saw the need to unite, to be organized and maintain relevance.

So, as we come together again this month, to celebrate PRIDE, let’s remember to celebrate one another and celebrate all those who came before us. As we gather to drink and march and unite and dance, remember we have come a long way from the DOB, and we still have so far yet to go.

Las Vegas PRIDE Magazine - Issue 34

This article was originally published in the Summer Fun Issue of Las Vegas PRIDE Magazine, and can be read in its original format here.