Happy LGBT+ History Month! It’s a great time to be a queer history omnivore, with more and more books, articles, documentaries, and films being produced and made widely available, than in years past. My voracious appetite for queer history has led me down many a rabbit hole. I’ll read a reference or passage about someone or an event and that will lead me to seek out more and more sources. It’s a wonderful, never ending cycle. If you spend any time at all reading about the queer history of the United States, you’ve likely heard about a nonprofit organization called The Daughters of Bilitis. This is just a quick overview of who they were and what they did; hopefully it will pique your curiosity and lead you on an in-depth reading spree (see Further Reading below).
Founded in 1955 in San Francisco, the Daughters of Bilitis (D.O.B) aimed to provide education for its members, fellow female-identified “variants”/”homophiles” (terms used in lieu of lesbian), and the public. This often happened through public panels, private meetings, social events (picnics, bowling, holiday parties, etc.), and research projects. They also sought to understand laws regulated their personal and public lives and how they might promote positive change in this area. One of the DOB’s primary methods of communicating its purpose and connecting with queer women was through the organizational publication, The Ladder. The magazine ran from 1956 through 1970. Each issue contained informative articles on topics of interest to “variant” women; original fiction and poetry; an events calendar; letters to the editor; book lists; and more.
The newsletters were promoted in large part by word-of-mouth. Folks passed told their friends about it; and DOB members contacted universities and professional persons (such as lawyers, psychiatrists, authors). In more than one issue, subscribers and potential subscribers were assured, in detail, that their private information would not find its way into the hands of government officials or other entities that might use it for nefarious purposes (or for whatever else, there was no good reason for the subscriber list to be handed over to anyone outside of the newsletter staff). The readership comprised people from all over the country and the world (as evidenced by the letters to the editor) and from cities large and small.
This was my second go round of browsing through back issues of The Ladder. It’s one thing for me to read about it through second, third hand sources, like books, articles, and documentaries. Quite another to read letters to the editor, ads for events, book lists, and short stories. It is not easy to get hold of, so I want to say how much I really appreciate my local public library’s Interlibrary Loan (ILL) department for finding me a copy and a huge thanks for the universities that allowed me to borrow it!
And of course, what kind of post would this be if I didn’t include a book list (of sorts)? Why, I’d be a real crumb bum 😉
Different Daughters (2007) by Marica M. Gallo, Seal Press
Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (1991) by Lillian Faderman, Columbia University Press.
*See pages 148-150, 179, 180, 186, 190-193, 197, 198.
Bessette, J. (2013). An archive of anecdotes: Raising lesbian consciousness after the Daughters of Bilitis. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 43(1), 22-45.
Esterberg, K. G. (1994). From accommodation to liberation: A social movement analysis of lesbians in the homophile movement. Gender & Society, 8(3), 424-443.
Gorman, P. (1985). The Daughters of Bilitis: a description and analysis of a female homophile social movement organization, 1955-1963 (Doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University).
Martin, D., & Lyon, P. (2001). Daughters of Bilitis and the Ladder that Teetered. Journal of lesbian studies, 5(3), 113-118.
Schultz, G. (2001). Daughters of Bilitis: Literary Genealogy and Lesbian Authenticity. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 7(3), 377-389.