Daughters of Bilitis Women Founders Marry in San Francisco: A Teachable Moment

Jim Wilson/The New York Times Del Martin, seated, and Phyllis Lyon were the first same-sex couple in San Francisco to exchange wedding vows on Monday, June 17, 2008. Mayor Gavin Newsom, left, presided.

I am pretty sure these elderly women are the ones I mention in a topic on the gay liberation movement in my United States History Since 1877 class (Hist 104). I introduced this component a couple of years ago after years of timidity. I decided it was necessary to give a more comprehensive rendering of American history and include gay history of the 1950s and 1960s. While it is not my lifestyle, one has to make choices even if teaching at a Catholic university what is in the best interests of the students–for me that is to have a full complement of disparate groups included in the panorama of American history.

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded the first lesbian organisation in the United States, Daughters of Bilitis, in San Francisco in 1955. The group also published the first lesbian-oriented publication, a newsletter called the Ladder. I have not been able to learn the origins of that name or what it represented. I do know where the name, “Daughters of Bilitis” emanated from. A French writer, Pierre Louys wrote in 1894, The Song of Bilitis which purportedly contained erotic love poems between women during classical times. However, further research revealed they were not original poems discovered by the author but WRITTEN by the author himself.

I might add that my students have been very receptive to the material and it was quite useful in discussing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of the United States military. While a couple of students, as is their right, used biblical references to condemn homosexuality, the vast majority of my students were quite tolerant of different sexual preferences. During one class, a student declared he was gay and came up to me after class, shook my hand and said, “thanks.” I said something to the effect that I was merely doing my job as a professor but that I respected students’ habits and urgings. After a class this Spring, a student came up to me as I was in the hall and said their orientation was bisexual. I indicated I had read that most bisexuals are actually homosexuals but the student affirmed sexual attraction to both genders.

I wish the presidential candidates would quit pandering to majority opinion and simply state they support marriage regardless of gender and leave it at that. They don’t have to push for a constitutional amendment legalising it but just offer some support to states that permit same-sex marriages such as California and Massachusetts or others such as Vermont, Hawai’i, Connecticut and New Jersey that permit civil unions–kind of a secular junior partner of same-sex marriages. Senator Barack Obama does support the latter but not the Arizona senator war criminal of the Vietnam disgrace and genocide.

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