Promoted
LGBT

This 1950s Secret Social Club Printed The First Lesbian Magazine

In 1955, a group of eight women founded a secret club which would become the first lesbian civil rights organization in the U.S.

1. During the 1950s, being an out gay woman was rarely heard of and nearly impossible.

Out lesbians faced job termination, arrest if caught at a reputed gay bar, even forced conversion therapy. The American Psychiatric Association didn’t remove homosexuality from their official list of mental disorders until 1973.

2. If you were in the closet, but didn’t want to risk heading out to the gay bars, you had very few options for socializing.

3. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who lived in San Francisco, were among the women who became frustrated with their blatant lack of options.

In 1955, though the couple had been dating for three years, they realized they didn’t know any other lesbians.

4. The women, along with five others, started a small social club which would became the first lesbian civil rights group: The Daughters Of Bilitis, or DOB.

5. As one woman put it, “All lesbians will know Bilitis, but no one else will!”

6. Phyllis later joked that she didn’t actually know the Bilitis reference at the time.

For all you Phyllis’s out there: Bilitis is the name given to a fictional lesbian contemporary of Sappho, by the French poet Pierre Louÿs.

7. At first, the group had trouble recruiting members. How do you advertise a secret club?

Phyllis Lyon reminisces:

9. The solution came in the form of a simple newsletter, sent out to any gay women they knew of. Eventually, the newsletter became the first lesbian magazine, The Ladder.

10. Early editions were a dozen or so hand-stapled pages long, produced on a typewriter, copied by a mimeograph.

Most of us need a refresher on what a mimeograph is. It’s okay.

 

11. Inside you could read book reviews, poetry, short stories, and news from recent DOB meetings.

12. The DOB’s official statement was printed on the inside of every issue until 1970:


1.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.

2.Education of the public…leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous taboos and prejudices.

3.Participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychologists, sociologists, and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual.

4.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.

13. Famous gay activist Barbara Gittings founded the New York chapter of the DOB, and ran it from 1958 to 1963.

14. The Ladder’s editor position changed hands from Del Martin to Gittings in 1963.

Now we all know what a mimeograph looks like.

15. Here she is being extremely efficient and planning issues six months ahead of time:

16. By the time of its last issue in 1972, The Ladder had grown from a simple newsletter into a 40+ page publication.

And several chapters of the DOB existed in seven countries.

17. Unfortunately by 1972, the publication had run out of funds and it’s long run finally came to a close.

18. The impact of the DOB on the lives of women was described by historian Martin Meeker:


“The DOB succeeded in linking hundreds of lesbians across the country with one another and gathering them into a distinctly modern communication network that was mediated through print and, consequently, imagination, rather than sight, sound, smell, and touch.

19. The couple who helped start it all, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, were finally married in San Francisco in 2008.

 

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Sarah Karlan is the associate LGBT editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Sarah Karlan at sarah.karlan@buzzfeed.com
 
 
          
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