The Daughters of Bilitis



The Daughters of Bilitis, DOB or, the Daughters), was the first lesbian rights organization in the United States. It was formed in San Francisco in 1955, conceived as a social alternative to lesbian bars, which were considered illegal and thus subject to raids and police harassment. It lasted for fourteen years and became a tool of education for lesbians, gay men, researchers, and mental health professionals. As the DOB gained members, their focus shifted to providing support to women who were afraid to come out, by educating them about their rights and gay history.

In 1955, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon had been together as lovers for three years when they complained to a gay male couple that they did not know any other lesbians. The gay couple introduced Martin and Lyon to another lesbian couple, one of whom suggested they create a social club   In October 1955, eight women — four couples — met to provide each other with a social outlet. One of their priorities was to have a place to dance, as dancing with the same sex in a public place was illegal. Although unsure of how exactly to proceed with the group, they began to meet regularly, realized they should be organized, and quickly elected Martin as president. From the start they had a clear focus to educate other women about lesbians, and reduce their self-loathing brought on by the socially repressive times. The name of the newfound club was chosen in its second meeting. "Bilitis" is the name given to a fictional lesbian contemporary of Sappho, by the French poet Pierre Louÿs in his 1894 work The Songs of Bilitis in which Bilitis was an Isle of Lesbos alongside Sappho. The name was chosen for its obscurity; even Martin and Lyon did not know what it meant. "Daughters" was meant to evoke association with other American social associations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution. They also designed a pin to wear to be able to identify with others, chose club colors and voted on a motto "Qui vive", French for "on alert". The organization filed a charter for non-profit corporation status in 1957, writing a description so vague, Phyllis Lyon remembered, "it could have been a charter for a cat-raising club.” Within a year of its creation, most of the original eight participants were no longer part of the group, but their numbers had grown to 16, and they decided they wanted to be more than only a social alternative to bars. By 1959 there were chapters of the DOB in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Rhode Island along with the original chapter in San Francisco. Soon after forming, the DOB wrote a mission statement. In October 1956, the The Ladder, was the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the U.S. The DOB advertised itself as "A Woman's Organization for the purpose of Promoting the Integration of the Homosexual into Society." Education of the variant...to enable her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society...this to be accomplished by establishing...a library...on the sex deviant theme; by sponsoring public discussions...to be conducted by leading members of the legal psychiatric, religious and other professions; by advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society. Education of the public Participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychologists, sociologists, and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual. Investigation of the penal code as it pertain to the homosexual, proposal of changes,...and promotion of these changes through the due process of law in the state legislatures." As a national organization, the Daughters of Bilitis folded in 1970.