1955: First lesbian organization rises on waves of militant struggles
Lavender & red, part 51
Published Jan 26, 2006 12:36 PM
The founding of Daughters of
Bilitis on Sept. 21, 1955, in San Francisco—the first known political
network for lesbian rights in the United States—holds important lessons
about the era of resistance to McCarthyism that may not be immediately apparent.
DOB was not founded by communists. Nor did the organization seek
The group’s charter didn’t use the word
“lesbian”; it referred only to “the variant.”
DOB’s founding statement of purpose counseled members to adjust and adapt
to dominant mandates about proper dress and behavior in order to fit in. They
hoped to gradually win acceptance through education. The organization drew to
its ranks lesbians who most wanted to and were most able to “fit
in”—white-collar workers, professional and middle-class women,
DOB invited academic and medical “established
experts”—some distantly sympathetic, some outright hostile—to
speak at their meetings. East Coast DOB founder Barbara Gittings later recalled,
“We invited people who were willing to come to our meetings; obviously, it
turned out to be those who had a vested interest in having us as penitents,
clients or patients.”
The DOB leadership at that time looked to
these establishment figures as vehicles of social change, who could help them
with their goals.
So it may appear to be veering off track for this
Workers World newspaper series—that focuses on the relationship between
the liberation of oppressed sexualities, genders and sexes, and the communist
movement—to examine DOB’s formation.
But the question must be
asked: How could even such a politically moderate demand by lesbians—the
right to fit in and just live their lives—be articulated at the
mid-fifties height of the Cold War, a time of the most focused persecution of
gays and lesbians in U.S. history?
What gave these white lesbians the
idea that this was a good time to sit down in someone’s living room, and
later in publicly rented spaces in San Francisco, Boston and New York, to
discuss their rights?
DOB was not formed in a political vacuum. It arose
in the midst of militant struggles against racism and for women’s
liberation. Without a deeper understanding of that period, the establishment of
DOB makes it appear that the best road forward for democratic rights in a period
of capitalist reaction is to ask for them politely, hat in hand—give an
inch, get an inch.
The truth is that Daughters of Bilitis objectively
rose up on waves of resistance by the Black freedom movement and by communist
women—Black and white—who were fighting for the recognition that
women’s oppression was an important battlefront in the class war.
Dramatic changes in the structuring of the U.S. wartime economy, its
impact on the heterosexual family, and the unbearable burden of Jim Crow
apartheid had helped create the conditions for these struggles.
‘Rosie the Riveter’ to ‘Father Knows Best’
deployment of so many men as GIs in World War II, women in military support
roles and the gearing of the economy towards large-scale military production
created many changes for women.
Some 150,000 women were inducted into the
military in largely same-sex surroundings. Many women—white, Black, Latina
and Native—and African American male workers not in the military were able
for the first time to get better-paying jobs in heavy industry to produce war
This economic development brought people out of the isolation
of their farms and jobs, homes and neighborhoods, families and friendship
circles into more large-scale, same-sex, somewhat anonymous social interaction.
This gave individuals the opportunity to learn new ideas and ways of being, to
express their suppressed identities, to open up larger friendship circles and to
But after the war, the Pentagon carried out a purge of the
military, loading lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans soldiers onto “queer
ships” and dumping them at the nearest port town, often far from home. In
cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and New York, this created a
very large lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans population.
In the weeks and
months after the war ended, the barons of industry gave most women and Black
workers notice—quit or be fired. Move over and make room for the
predominately white male troops returning from mass deployment. It was a hard
sell because many women workers of all nationalities, and Black workers as a
whole, did not want to leave their jobs.
Bosses pitted workers against
each other: Training programs for job skills dried up for lack of funding,
war-time child-care centers shut down, and college slots for low-income students
were filled with many white male GIs who won student aid as part of their
A mass psychology and publicity spin aided the
bosses’ efforts to restructure the work force after the war. Magazine
covers extolled the virtue of heterosexual marriage with the man as the
breadwinner. The image of the “lady” in a spotless dress, at home in
the kitchen, an infant in the crook of her arm, replaced photos of women in hard
hats with their sleeves rolled up operating machinery.
marriage age dropped, the rate of marriage rose to its highest level in the
history of the U.S. and the birth rate soared.
Lesbians and gays in
The systematic and sensationalized witch hunt carried
out against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in the 1950s Cold War era
aided the economic efforts underway to reinforce the heterosexual nuclear family
as the primary economic unit under capitalism.
Gay and lesbian bars, many
of them drag bars, had sprouted by 1940 in cities across the country—from
Buffalo, N.Y., to Denver to San Jose, Calif. During the early- and mid-fifties,
people in these bars were routinely subjected to brutal police raids and jailing
in which sexual humiliation, rape and extortion by cops was a widespread form of
Mass arrests included 64 lesbians
busted in a 1953 New Orleans bar raid. A similar 1955 Baltimore bar raid
ensnared 162 gay men.
Miami politicians ordered a police terror sweep on
the local beaches in 1953, and passed a city law against drag. When a gay man
was bashed to death in Miami the following year, local newspapers demanded
punishment for homosexuals for having tempted “normals” to kill
Police entrapment, newspapers printing names and addresses of those
arrested, FBI agents talking to workers’ employers, threats of forced
institutionalization and imprisonment—these were tough times in which to
organize a fledgling lesbian network.
In 1955, the year DOB formed, one of
the most nationally publicized anti-gay persecutions in U.S. history was taking
place in Boise, the state capital of Idaho, resulting in nine men serving 5- to
15-year sentences in prison.
All workers felt the impact of one of
President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first acts in the Oval Office: a 1953
executive order that legalized investigations into the homosexuality of
government workers and all job applicants.
While the terror was directed
at those who were oppressed for their sexuality, gender expression or sex, the
indirect message was loud and clear to all workers: straighten up!
did Daughters of Bilitis form amidst this Cold War offensive? In effect, lesbian
organizing rode the crest of turbulent swells of militant political organizing
Next: Lesbian organizing and “red
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