Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, San Francisco, November 19, 1976
Introduction: this interview was done as a joint interview with Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, long-time partners who were the founders, in 1955 in San Francisco, of the Daughters of the Bilitis, the main lesbian organization in the pre-Stonewall homophile movement. Martin and Lyon remained activists for more than half a century. Here, they talk about the founding of DOB, its goals and focus in its early years, internal conflicts that emerged within the organization later in the 1960s, and the conflicts with male organizations like Mattachine Society and male activists generally, who often did not treat the activism of the women seriously and didn’t grasp the ways that the needs and experiences of lesbians were different from those of gay men.
Both had read whatever was available. Martin, when realizing she was a lesbian: “I’d go to the library and look up whatever was there and it was horrifying to read the stuff they were saying. How could you identify that? How could you call yourself that when it was so awful? It was a real struggle. When Donald Webster Cory and Ann Aldrich wrote their books, it was a great thing even though they were calling us sick because there were some positive things.”
Martin: DOB started as social group. In discussions, realized that to change things, had to reach public. Therefore, change to politics.
Lyon: original woman, who got 7 friends together, wanted “an alternative to the bars, someplace where we could dance.” “Went along with it without knowing exactly what it all meant.” E.g. politics.
Martin: “We didn’t know what we were doing or what we were getting into; we were just playing it by ear.”
Public discussion groups and The Ladder meant to reach other lesbians. Intended The Ladder as a newsletter, not as a magazine.
Lyon: 1st issue done on Mattachine mimeograph. “Mailed them out to everybody that anybody knew anywhere. And what happened was that we got this incredible avalanche of mail that we never even expected. And when you do something like that, you’re trapped!”
Lyon: Recruitment: we didn’t have any lesbian friends! “Basically by word of mouth. Some people saw The Ladder”
Sanders involved shortly after 1st issue of The Ladder which she read. Lyon and Martin knew her.
Lyon: “People were scared to death just to have anything in their mail. It was a problem to reach out and find all those people. You only got The Ladder if you happened to find out about it. You weren’t going to read about it in the paper or by seeing a copy on the newsstands.”
Martin: “You have to understand the isolation of people. How can you start a chapter if you don’t know anybody else in your whole state? There was just so much isolation and people not knowing each other and not knowing how to make contact. It was much harder for gay women than for gay men.”
Discussion groups did draw a lot.
Martin “You could go to that and pretend to be the public.”
Get speakers who would provide information, dispel some of the myths.
Priorities among goals in early years:
Lyon: “More concerned about what was happening to the lesbian. But there never was a plan. We concentrated on what was happening at the time, like the model penal code, or opportunities to speak with people. But there was no master plan.”
How did you keep going?
Lyon: “There were lots of rewards because there were lots of women whose lives really changed, a lot of personal growth.”
DOB as a revolving door: only small percentage of members were active. Type a dummy, type on stencils, to printer, collate, mail it—lots of women helped. Early days, all events held at Lyon and Martin home.
First shared space with Mattachine, then own office where The Ladder put together, mail answered. Meet after work. Ladder not self-sufficient—it depended on DOB funds and personal contributions. (that was also true of Mattachine Review). National dues went into The Ladder, correspondence, and rent for office. Money raised through parties.
Emphasis on professionals, sometimes were negative. Why?
“The professionals really are the opinion makers in our society. At first I was afraid of them but as we got to know them we realized that our ideas were just as good as theirs. They had theories, not facts.”
Lyon: wasn’t until 68-69 and Council on Religion and the Homosexual symposium on life styles that we realized that we knew a whole lot more than they did. “But the reason for doing the professional thing in the beginning was that by having a public speaker you could get people to come and where could you get a gay person to speak?”
Martin: “We didn’t know. We needed support. We needed support from the heterosexual establishment. We were at a point where how could we be the ones to deal with the public…if you could understand the fear that was involved with those first meetings. You just can’t begin to realize the fear that was involved and how scared we were. We were just as scared as everybody else.”
Met Blanche Baker through Mattachine & ONE.
Side #1B: TOO FAINT TO HEAR
January 1965: Lyon works part-time for Council on Religion and the Homosexual. Full-time by June.
1968—both of them leave DOB—if organization is to survive, it has to be able to survive without us. (neither went to Denver Convention, 1968)
Restructuring proposal of Shirley Willer — both opposed to it.
Did go to 1970 DOB Convention:
About The Ladder
About abolishing national structure
Only 2 options—either let The Ladder go, or sue to get it back. Latter too costly, and destructive: e.g., ONE’s experience. Decide to leave it alone. Without The Ladder, didn’t need the national structure, plus growing trend toward local autonomy.
Grier and Laporte “stole” The Ladder. Afraid they would lose at 1970 Convention, be replaced as editor, so she didn’t come.
Lyon: "Differences of opinion about how The Ladder should go”
Grier and Laporte had “no sense of any kind of democratic processes.” Never came to conferences. Only met her at Kansas City meeting.
Kansas City Meeting:
Martin: Kameny and Polak “came with a different agenda and they were going to do it no matter what. They wanted a super-organization and in the West we didn’t. We wanted communication and exchange but none of us wanted a super-organization.”
More people at the SF 8/66 meeting.
Martin: “It was just horrendous. You couldn’t get Kameny to shut up.”
Big discussion about structure and membership — we wanted anyone to be there who wanted to speak. Never read the Gunnison memoes.
Martin: DOB against national organization because we would be outnumbered by male organizations. But also, all West Coast organizations agreed on this—no super-organization. Real differences between East and West.
“Ten Days in August” responsible for move toward feminism. Shirley Willer speech—to men, either change or forget it.
Martin/Lyon, Rush/Sanders, Willer/Glass sat down to talk about it—maybe we should start finding out about women’s organizations, “infiltrating”, developing dialogue with them.
Early 1967, NOW forming in SF—heard a radio program. Inka Hanrahan. Sent our money in and joined - next year, discovered couple membership. In SF, never had the gay/straight fights as in NY. By 1968, becoming real active in NOW.
From 1965, Lyon primarily involved in Council on Religion and the Homosexual. 1968—National Sex Forum formed.
Martin’s 1970 farewell:
At 1970 NACHO “unity” banquet. Some women “disrupted” NACHO Conf.—Aug 26 Union Square demonstration of women—representatives go to NACHO. Gay liberation reps there also disrupting—supporting women but for wrong reasons.
Martin: “It showed how little effect we had had.” Martin wrote the manifesto.
1971 NOW Convention in Los Angeles: explicitly pro-lesbian resolution. Had agreed to do a workshop on lesbians. At Convention, lots of pro-lesbian resolutions proposed by different chapters—New York was the problem.
Wonderful position paper by LA chapter. Articles in LA press at start of Convention about Friedan and anti-lesbianism. Very few voted against the pro-lesbian resolution, even though it acknowledged NOW’s discrimination against lesbians. Friedan didn’t show for the vote.
Why the enormous changes in recent years?
Alternative life styles
More talking about sex
The foundations built before Stonewall
Getting past the conspiracy of silence in the media
Candidates night in SF sponsored by Council on Religion and the Homosexual.
1973—first lesbian caucus at a NOW convention—in Wash D.C.