The Daughters of Bilitis

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In the grand scheme of LGBT+ history, it’s easy to try and pin our liberation down to just a few key moments; Stonewall, for example, has become shorthand for the gay rights movement worldwide, despite its real significance being mostly limited to the United States. Peripheral groups, no less important, are often overshadowed by more controversial (and therefore more publicised) movements. One such group is the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil rights movement in the United States. Starting in San Francisco, they established chapters across America, and even inspired a chapter in Melbourne, Australia. The founding members of four couples focused on educating other lesbians of their rights and developing their self-confidence.

Initially, the group was supposed to be a social alternative to lesbian bars. Gay bars at the time were subject to police raids and violence, discouraging many closeted gays from attending. The Daughters of Bilitis made it part of their mission to give women a place to dance together, something that was illegal at the time, and socialise with other lesbians; a safe place to meet and get to know other gay omen was desperately needed. Perhaps the most important part of their mission was education. The first president of the society, Del Martin, reasoned that a lack of information about female homosexuality caused self-hatred and loneliness, both of which would prevent lesbians from being confident enough to fight for their own rights.

The society was, of course, discreet. Although they had their own publication The Ladder, as well as club colours, pins, and the motto “Qui Vive”, they defined their group so loosely that they could easily present an alibi. In fact, when asked, members usually claimed to be part of a poetry society. The society, above all else, wished to avoid conflict and disruption. Along with the one of the first gay rights (then known as the Homophile Movement) societies in America, the Mattachine Society, they aimed to claim their liberation through legislation and education, as well as assimilation into mainstream culture. This is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the group- butches were discouraged from dressing themselves according to their own taste, and instead persuaded to dress as femininely as possible. The direction of the group changed in following years, but it initially encouraged its women to be as “straight acting” as possible.

The society lasted for fourteen years, before folding due to infighting and lack of funding. It is in part responsible for the founding of many later civil rights groups, pioneering broader networks of American lesbians that allowed many closeted women to connect with others, and come out from the shadows. In an age where lesbian bars are dying out, and stigma is still prevalent in mainstream society, social spaces for gay women are still just as important. The Daughters of Bilitis may not have been perfect, but much can still be learned from their goals and how they operated. Hubs for education, socialisation and advice for lesbians are desperately needed- all it takes is one group of passionate people to make a difference.

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