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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 revolutionary change.

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, overwhelmingly white.

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.

From ‘Rosie the Riveter’ to ‘Father Knows Best’

The 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 materiel.

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 network.

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 veterans’ benefits.

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.

The average 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 cross-hairs

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 extra-legal “sentencing.”

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 them.

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!

So how did Daughters of Bilitis form amidst this Cold War offensive? In effect, lesbian organizing rode the crest of turbulent swells of militant political organizing and resistance.

Next: Lesbian organizing and “red feminism.”