THE DAUGHTERS OF BILITIS
With her partner Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon founded The Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization with a national presence in the United States.
The group advertised themself as "A Woman's Organization for the purpose of Promoting the Integration of the Homosexual into Society.” Their magazine, The Ladder, was initially edited by Phyllis and every issue from 1956 through 1970 contained their four priorities on the inside cover:
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...leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous taboos and prejudices...
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.
Despite starting as a strictly social group, the Daughters of Bilitis shifted to activism dedicated to lesbian rights progression. They provided lesbians with the then scarce opportunities to socialize amongst each other to create visibility and political capital for the neglected.
In 1967, Phyllis and Del joined the feminist group, National Organization for Women, and Del was the first open lesbian to serve on their board. The couple then co-founded the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, a San Francisco-based association and political action committee for LGBTQ Democrats, in 1971. Forty-nine years after they founded the Daughters of Bilitis, Phyllis and Del were the first same-sex couple to be married in San Francisco.
On April 9, 2020, Phyllis Lyon passed away at 95 years old. Below is the last interview she ever did.
“When I love someone, I feel a great tenderness for them. I may not love them passionately, but I love them dearly. I don’t know how everyone else is, but I just know when I’m in love with someone. That’s how I felt about Del Martin, who I co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis with and who was my life-long partner. We were the first couple to get married when San Francisco legalized gay marriage.
It was very difficult for women before Women’s Liberation. It still is today. When we started the Daughter of Bilitis, it was the beginning of our feeling as women that we could do what men didn’t think we could. We were going to do it, and we did! Women started going to college and learning how to do whatever—working in big business and breaking the glass ceiling. Women and lesbians were progressing.
I knew I was illegal, but what the hell? When somebody would say, ‘No, no, no, never, never, never,’ I’d still go ahead and do it. Somehow, to them, because I was a lesbian, it would turn into something awful—it would automatically be. Unless I’m hurting somebody else or stealing something from someone or committing a crime, whose business is it anyway? The fact that I love another woman doesn’t make me a criminal. You have two people together that like each other and decide to have sex, that’s not a big deal for anyone. We initially wanted to form an organization to get to know other lesbians. We didn’t have a community back then. There wasn’t a way for us to find people like ourselves—there weren’t lesbian bars and social events. Del and I said, ‘How could we get to do that?’ Then, ‘Well, maybe if we had an organization.’ We got together with some friends who we knew were lesbians, and then they found other friends of theirs. Word spread quickly, and the lesbian community who wanted to be involved joined. From there, it grew and grew and grew, and soon, we had a national presence. We were in every state in the Union. We were all women, and we didn’t have a lot of money. If we were men, we probably could have done more, but I am proud of and cherish what we did.”