British Association for American Studies


The Forgotten LGBT Pioneers of 1956

The Daughters of Bilitis. Source: http://outsa.org/history/the-daughters-of-bilitis/

The Daughters of Bilitis. Source: http://outsa.org/history/the-daughters-of-bilitis/

1956 saw people all over the world fill the streets and city squares, take up arms, and risk their livelihoods, and even their lives, in the cause of freedom. Mass protests in Poland, and then a popular uprising in Hungary, shook Moscow’s hold on its Eastern European empire.  In Montgomery, Alabama, a boycott against bus segregation ended in a historic triumph, after more than year of struggle. And, in Cuba, Fidel Castro and his band of compañeros arrived back on the island, aboard the Granma, determined to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

Equally significant, in its own way, was the publication in October 1956 of an obscure magazine, whose first issue was probably read by just a few hundred people in the Bay Area.  The magazine’s cover image featured two women: one, wearing a dress, has her right arm on the left shoulder of her companion, who is dressed in slacks and a blouse; the couple are gazing up at a ladder that ascends high into the clouds above.  The newsletter, which had been assembled by a handful of dedicated activists, working out of a tiny, sublet office in San Francisco, was the Ladder – the official monthly magazine of the pioneering lesbian organisation, the Daughters of Bilitis.[1]  Founded a year earlier, with the aim of promoting “the integration of the homosexual in society”, the DOB – like their male compatriots in the so-called homophile movement – embraced the politics of ‘respectability’ as a way to advance the cause, and to press the claims, of gay and lesbian Americans.  So while the DOB sought to educate the public and challenge “erroneous conceptions, taboos and prejudices” about homosexuality, it was also committed to “advocating a mode of behavior and dress” that would be “acceptable to society.”[2]

DOB advert from the Eastern Mattachine Magazine, November 1965, page 7. Source: http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com/2015/05/27/69795

DOB advert from the Eastern Mattachine Magazine, November 1965, page 7. Source: http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com/2015/05/27/69795

Despite their emphasis on middle-class respectability and integration, the first issue of the Ladder was in many ways remarkably bold.  Alongside a summary of the DOB’s aims, and information about forthcoming events – including a picnic, a public discussion on lesbians’ fears (entitled “What Are You Afraid Of?”) and a Halloween Party – was an editorial expressing the hope that the magazine would be a “force in uniting the women in working for the common goal of greater personal and social acceptance and understanding.”[3]  Then, in the middle of the magazine, was the ‘President’s Message’, written by Del Martin.   The 35-year-old, who had co-founded the DOB with her partner, Phyllis Lyon (the Ladder’s first editor), characterized “the lesbian” as “a very elusive creature.  She burrows underground in her fear of identification.  She is cautious in her associations.  Current modes in hair style and casual attire have enabled her to camouflage her existence.  She claims she does not need help.  And she will not risk her tight little fist of security to aid those who do.”  Calling on her fellow lesbians to channel the “foresight and determination” of an earlier generation of female pioneers, Martin issued a rousing call-to-arms: “And what will be the lot of the future lesbian?  Fear? Scorn? This need not be – IF lethargy is supplanted by an energized constructive program, if cowardice gives way to the solidarity of a cooperative front.  If the ‘let Georgia do it’ attitude is replaced by the realization of individual responsibility in thwarting the evils of ignorance, superstition, prejudice and bigotry.” “Nothing was ever accomplished by hiding in a dark corner”, Martin continued, so “why not discard the hermitage for the heritage that awaits any red-blooded American woman who dares to claim it?”[4]

The first edition of the Ladder, hammered out on an old typewriter and run off on an ageing mimeograph machine, was mailed – in a plain brown envelope – to just 200 people, mostly friends, known lesbians, and middle-class professionals.  But as news of this remarkable new publication began to spread, letters of support and donations poured into the DOB office, overwhelming the small staff who struggled to keep up with the growing mailbag. Within a year, there were 400 subscribers, rising to 1,000 by the mid-1960s and the magazine, which was frequently handed around to friends, lovers and colleagues, enjoyed an even wider circulation.[5]  As the DOB’s historian, Marcia M. Gallo has argued, “it is undeniable that the little magazine had a big impact.”[6]

DOB founders, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Source: Associated Press.

DOB founders, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Source: Associated Press.

The Ladder would eventually evolve into a sophisticated and well-respected publication, drawing an intelligent and well-read readership among both homosexuals and heterosexuals.  It would also play a major role in helping to “advance and create lesbian visibility at a time when it was rare to find portrayals of gay women beyond the stereotypes of sadistic schoolteachers or sex-starved co-eds.”[7] But perhaps the most important thing was that it existed at all.  The 1950s were, after all, a difficult time for America’s gay and lesbian citizens as the Eisenhower administration, citing national security concerns, cracked down on known or suspected homosexuals in a purge that became known as the lavender scare.[8]

National intolerance was replicated at the local level, too.  On 20 February 1956, the San Mateo County sheriff dispatched 35 officers (including military police and Highway Patrol agents) to raid Hazel’s Inn, a gay bar in Sharp Park, about 15 miles south of San Francisco.  After rounding up 300 patrons, shortly after midnight, almost 100 people – including 10 women – were arrested for “lewd and lascivious conduct.”  As the sheriff explained, the “purpose of the raid was to make it clear to these people that we won’t put up with this sort of thing.”[9] And, just a few weeks before the Ladder was launched, San Francisco’s lesbian community was rocked by a police raid on the Alamo club, another of the city’s gay bars, arresting more than 30 women on charges of “frequenting a house of ill repute.”[10]  Like the other gay publications of the time (such as Mattachine Review and ONE), the Ladder was a godsend, providing a “means of expressing and sharing otherwise private thoughts and feelings, of connecting across miles and disparate daily lives, of breaking through isolation and fear.”[11]  Its publication in October 1956 was, then, a quietly subversive act of a truly revolutionary year.


[1] Nanette K. Gartrell & Esther D. Rothblum, eds., Everyday Mutinies: Funding Lesbian Activism (New York: Routledge, 2001), 114; the first edition of The Ladder is available via the Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 (Alexander Street Press).

[2] Marcia M. Gallo, Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2006), 1-3, 11.

[3] The Ladder, October 1956, vo. 1, no. 1, 1-5.

[4] Del Martin, ‘President’s Message’, The Ladder, October 1956, 6-7.

[5] Gartrell & Rothblum, Everyday Mutinies: Funding Lesbian Activism, 114-15; Kathleen Endres & Therese l. Lueck, eds., Women’s Periodicals in the United States: Social and Political Issues (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 157; Jan Whitt, Women in American Journalism: A New History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 153; Marca M. Gallo, ‘An Interpretation and Document Archive: Introduction, The Ladder, Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000, at http://womhist.alexanderstreet.com/mgallo/intro.htm

[6] Gallo, ‘Introduction’.

[7] Gallo, ‘Introduction’.

[8] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[9] Risa Goluboff, Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 46; Brett Beemyn, ed., Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories (New York: Routledge, 1997), 86-87.

[10] Gallo, Different Daughters, 29.

[11] Gallo, “Celebrating the Years of The Ladder.” Off Our Backs. Washington: May/Jun 2005. Vol. 35, Iss. 5/6; 34.