Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Historical society to honor Daughters of Bilitis


Phyllis Lyon, left, and Del Martin at last year's National Center for Lesbian Rights gala. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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Phyllis Lyon is celebrating two very special milestones this year. Fifty years ago, she, her partner, Del Martin, and six other Bay Area women started the first political lesbian organization in the United States. The founding member of the Daughter of Bilitis is also turning 81.

The GLBT Historical Society is throwing a party to celebrate both momentous occasions. The "Date of Birth" fundraiser will be held Thursday, November 10 at the headquarters of Olivia, the cruise and vacation company that caters to lesbians.

Lyon didn't have many expectations when she helped start the organization.

"We didn't anticipate that there would ever be such an event," Lyon said.

Terence Kissack, the historical society's executive director, said it is important for the current generation to remember what these pioneering women did.

"Fifty years ago, it was an incredibly brave act to meet and to set an agenda changing the world in which we live," Kissack said.

"It's amazing they're still alive and doing the incredible things that they do," said Don Romesburg, a GLBT Historical Society board member.

The women weren't thinking about the history books when they started the secret lesbian society, named after the Songs of Bilitis , an obscure book of lesbian love poems.

In 1956, the Daughters launched a monthly newsletter called The Ladder. The Daughters soon had chapters all over the country. Members organized the first national convention on lesbian rights in 1960. They hosted the conventions every other year, for the next decade.

Today, there is only one chapter of the organization left in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Kissack said. The historical society is the repository for the Daughters' publications. They have all the issues of The Ladder and other documents.

For their part, Lyon and Martin continue to make history. The couple has been together for almost 53 years and was the first same-sex couple married at San Francisco City Hall last year.

Many of the same issues they dealt with 50 years are resurfacing, Martin said.

"People need to learn a little bit more about lesbian and gay history so that they don't have to keep repeating," she said.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights is a sponsor of next week's benefit. It was NCLR's executive director, Kate Kendell, who last year urged Lyon and Martin to get married once Newsom made the decision to allow city officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Kissack said understanding the LGBT history gives the community a sense of belonging.

"It's about recognizing the joy and the bravery and the political savvy of these women," he said.

A short program will be a chance for attendees to meet the movers and shakers of the community.

"You don't often get the opportunity to thank people who have so radically changed the world," Kissack said.

For Lyon and Martin, it will be a chance catch up with old friends.

"We're looking forward to seeing some people we haven't seen in a long time," Lyon said.

The Date of Birth celebration takes place from 6 to 8 p.m. at Olivia's headquarters located at 434 Brannan Street (between 3rd and 4th streets) in San Francisco. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased online at For more information call (415) 777-5455 or e-mail

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