The Daughters of Bilitis / The Ladder
I suppose that, since this site is named after the Daughters of Bilitis, I should start there, huh? According to the ONE Archives, the Daughters of Bilitis is considered the first lesbian organization in the United States, opening in 1955 (1). Their name is taken from Pierre Louÿs’ Les chansons de Bilitis (The Songs of Bilitis) (1894), a book of poetry “allegedly” written by a contemporary of Sappho (which I want to write about next!). In addition to a variety of in-person events and discussions, the newsletter, The Ladder, came out in 1956 and ran until 1972. Almost all the issues can be read free on archive.org.
This message is listed at the beginning of each issue:
DAUGHTERS OF BILITIS—PURPOSE
- Education of the variant, with particular emphasis on the psychological and sociological aspects, to enable her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society in all its social, civic and economic implications by establishing and maintaining a library of both fiction and non-fiction on the sex-deviant theme; by sponsoring public discussions on pertinent subjects 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 through acceptance first of the individual, leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous conceptions, taboos and prejudices; through public discussion meetings, through dissemination of educational literature on the homosexual theme.
- Participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychology, sociology and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual.
- Investigation of the penal code as it pertains to the homosexual, proposal of changes to provide an equitable handling of cases involving this minority group and promotion of these changes through due process of lay in the State Legislature.
As you can see, there’s a strong emphasis on trying to get lesbian women to assimilate into heterosexual society. On page 3 of the December 1956 issue, for example, a woman is quoted as saying “the kids in fly-front pants and with the butch haircuts and mannish manner are the worst publicity that we can get.” The same article continues to talk about convincing women to dress in ways “more accepted by society.” I plan to write more about this later, but there’s a consistent sense of othering that continues to be seen today: “I may be gay (or really you can insert any minority group you want here), but at least I’m not like them.”
It's a bit difficult to read, honestly, due to just how assimilative it is. Like, here’s the transcript of an article, “The US Has An Anti-Homosexual Culture,” from March 1957:
A blueprint of two methods for combatting the anti-homosexual culture which he believes to be prevalent in the United States was offered in a paper prepared for ONE Institute by Dr. Albert Ellis, New York psychologist.
Dr. Ellis listed the two ways as the Palliative Method and the Curative Method. He believes the first to be the most practical; the second the most sure in results. The following is an outline of these two methods:
A. The Palliative Method
- Social-sexual conditions will continue as they are today.
- Homosexuals will continue to exist.
- Heterosexuals will continue to penalize homosexuals.
B. To combat this situation by the Palliative Method the homosexual should:
- Remain a law-abiding, responsible citizen.
- Abhor all feelings and actions showing superiority.
- Refrain from flaunting their sex preferences in public.
- Avoid over-clannishness and mingle with heterosexuals in as honest and above-board manner as possible.
- Resist in-group favoritism and avoid sticking up for people merely because they are homosexual.
- Accept the realities of life and avoid self-pity.
- Help police his own group.
- Try, in a dignified way, to effect changes in the laws.
- Try to express protests to the public on discrimination against the homosexual and to correct misinformation in the public’s mind.
- Try to remain undogmatic about homosexuality. Keep an open mind and keep up with recent findings in the field. Be able to accept facts which may be contrary to his own beliefs or pro-homosexual bias.
Dr. Ellis feels that the best this method could hope to accomplish would be a lessening of antagonism. It would not bring about maximum results. This next method, he believes, would bring about maximum results but in order to do this would entail a complete revision of the sexual thoughts of all Americans. He calls it a futuristic and utopian method. However, he states his belief that the day will come – in several centuries perhaps – when people will not scorn, persecute, or jail the homosexual. The Curative Method looks to that day.
A. The Curative Method and what can be done about it now
- Combat puritanism and anti-sexual attitudes of all.
- Promulgate scientific facts.
- Sponsor scientific research.
- The homosexual can combat unfair sanctions by attacking their own unfair sanctions toward the heterosexual; by ruthlessly attacking unscientific attitudes and admitting that they are not born homosexual but are in some way emotionally disturbed and could be cured to some degree.
- Stop being pro-homosexual and just be pro-sexual.
The greatest, utopian hope for gay people is that they just stop being gay?? I just find it so shocking that the “Homophile Movement” started in such a toothless and appeasing way! Is it even possible to kiss the heteros' asses more than this?
But, still, I think it’s important to look at these early days and beliefs, and try to understand them. There was such an extreme culture of fear and guilt surrounding gay people: a combination of religious and political discrimination, not to mention what they faced on a personal, everyday level. The authors of the newsletter would beg for submissions or beg women to join the organization and the mailing list, promising they won’t release the list of names and that submissions will remain anonymous. Here’s a story from the December 1956 issue that I found particularly touching, describing a woman on the bus who takes particular notice of another woman and freaks out, worrying if others can hear her thoughts. Featured in the same issue is the article, “A CITIZEN'S RIGHTS IN CASE OF ARREST,” which gives a list of guidelines and advice for how to deal with being arrested. The previous issue mentioned the recent raid of a local bar. Another article talks about how lesbian women would often plead guilty when arrested, even when they had done nothing wrong. These are the actions and reactions of a group that has been repeatedly beaten down, which has no footing, which has no hope…
There’s an interesting interview later on, in the June 1966 issue, with Ernestine Eckstein, who was the Vice President of the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis at the time. She compares her experiences being involved as an active member of the NAACP with the Homophile Movement, as a black lesbian woman. In summary, she believes that gay people should emphasize on educating the public and making themselves heard:
Q. Would you say the burden of change is on society or on the homosexual, if his lot is to be improved?
A. I think to a certain extent it's on both. The homosexual has to assert himself more, and society has to give more. Homosexuals are invisible, except for the stereotypes, and I feel homosexuals have to become visible and to assert themselves politically. Once homosexuals do this, society will start to give more and more.
Q. You think more homosexuals should declare themselves, and get in homophile picket lines and so forth?
A. Any movement needs a certain number of courageous people, there's no getting around it. They have to come out on behalf of the cause and accept whatever consequences come. Most lesbians that I know endorse homophile picketing, but will not picket themselves. I will get in a picket line, but in a different city. For example, I picketed at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July Fourth last year, and at the White House in October, to protest discrimination against homosexuals.
In the same interview, she also discusses the importance of martyrs in a movement, whether literal or not. They pull a fragmented movement together and encourage people to act. It’s unfortunate, but very true, I think; people react more when frightened or otherwise whipped up into a frenzy than they would in times of peace, when they can continue just ignoring their problems.
Overall, I've only flipped through a couple issues out of over a hundred and mentioned some major themes that popped out at me. While there are numerous points that struck me as being particularly uncomfortable to read, I still think it's important to look back at these things. According to the ONE Archives, in the 50's, over 700 women were subscribed to this publication and certainly got comfort from reading it. The events lists in every issue also seems very interesting, like on top of themed discussions and lectures, they'd also just meet up for lunch or to go bowling. It's so sad that such things don't really seem to exist anymore, with the death of lesbian bars and clubs. We have Discord servers and the like, but that's nothing compared to actually meeting with women in real life...
And if nothing else, reading this makes me feel grateful for the progress that has been made and urges me to stand up for what I believe in… So long I’ve been quiet and passive, but fuck you! I have a voice and I’m going to use it, whether you like it or not!