First National Lesbian Conference Convenes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Beginning in 1960, and continuing for the next decade, the lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis organized biennial public conferences for lesbians and their supporters in major U.S. cities, the first such conferences in the United States.

Summary of Event

From May 27 to 30, 1960, at the Hotel Whitcomb in downtown San Francisco, the Daughters of Bilitis Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) sponsored a historic national conference that drew two hundred women, and a few men, for a program headlined “A Look at the Lesbian.” For a registration fee of $12.50 for the weekend’s activities, attendees were treated to a Friday night cocktail party at the home of DOB founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, followed by a series of speakers, a luncheon, a reception, and a banquet on Saturday. Sunday featured a DOB business meeting “for members only” during the day and a dinner for members and guests (women only) held at a lesbian-owned bar, The Front. [kw]First National Lesbian Conference Convenes (May, 1960) [kw]National Lesbian Conference Convenes, First (May, 1960) [kw]Lesbian Conference Convenes, First National (May, 1960) [kw]Conference Convenes, First National Lesbian (May, 1960) Lesbian conferences;first national[national] [c]Civil rights;May, 1960: First National Lesbian Conference Convenes[0540] [c]Organizations and institutions;May, 1960: First National Lesbian Conference Convenes[0540] [c]Feminism;May, 1960: First National Lesbian Conference Convenes[0540] Martin, Del Lyon, Phyllis

In organizing their program, DOB activists purposely invited speakers who would be able to assert “official” (albeit negative) religious and legal views of homosexuality. In their book Lesbian/Woman (1972), Lesbian/Woman (Martin and Lyon)[Lesbian Woman] Martin and Lyon wrote about their choice of luncheon speaker, the Reverend Fordyce Eastburn, and their desire to open dialogue with the church. The official representative of the California Episcopal Diocese Episcopal Church told conference attendees that Episcopalians had two choices for lesbians and gays seeking acceptance by the church: change or be celibate. “We look at it this way: we’ve opened a door to communication with the church. And that’s what we were looking for,” Martin wrote in Lesbian/Woman. Four years later, their strategy would pay off when local ministers teamed up with DOB members and other gay and lesbian rights activists to organize the groundbreaking Council on Religion and the Homosexual Council on Religion and the Homosexual Religion and the Homosexual, Council on in San Francisco.

The first DOB national conference in 1960 also included a debate on lesbian and gay bars between two local legal heavyweights. Attorneys Morris Lowenthal, who represented San Francisco Bay Area gay-bar owners in a number of cases, and Sidney Feinberg of California’s Alcoholic Beverage Commission, had faced each other in court over the question of the legality of lesbian and gay bars not long before the conference convened. The DOB saw the issue as paramount. The founders of DOB had organized their group to provide an alternative to the bar scene, although they believed that lesbians and gays had a basic right to socialize in bars, restaurants, and nightclubs if they preferred.

Martin and Lyon wrote in Lesbian/Woman, “In the early days of DOB, a great deal of energy was expended in apprising Lesbians of their legal rights, advising them of what to do in case of arrest, and obtaining legal counsel for victims of raids. The Ladder [DOB’s newsletter] had the distinction of having its September and October 1958 issues filed with the District Court of Appeals along with an amicus curiae brief by Lowenthal and Associates in the case of an Oakland Lesbian bar called Mary’s First and Last Chance.” While Lowenthal’s brief asserted a dichotomy between the DOB and the lesbians who patronized bars, it was true that DOB’s most active members and leaders were also regular customers of the numerous nightspots catering to gays and lesbians in the San Francisco Bay Area. The program for the national conference included not just a debate on the “gay bar question” but a gay and lesbian bar tour for out-of-town visitors, complete with a map and annotated comments provided by local DOB members.

Later Daughters of Bilitis gatherings, which drew anywhere from one hundred to three hundred women (and men) at each conference, were held in San Francisco and New York (1960 and 1966 in San Francisco; 1964 and 1970 in New York). They were also held in Los Angeles (1962) and a small Colorado town, Aurora, near Denver (1968). Structured much like those organized by other homophile groups at the time, each conference featured speeches, parties, and at least one gala event. Special awards—the “S.O.B awards” (for “Sons of Bilitis”) were given at each conference to men who had been helpful allies in DOB’s efforts to challenge both homophobia and sexism in the gay movement and in U.S. society.

Conferences also included a DOB business meeting, during which delegates from the chapters voted on national officers and policy changes. Voting lists of eligible members, proxies, and financial statements and reports were carefully created by the national governing board and the chapters for each gathering. In this way, the DOB consciously implemented democratic structures and practices into its organizational work.

Significance

Starting in 1960, and continuing every two years for the next decade, the DOB national conferences were the first and only national gatherings of lesbian activists and their allies in the United States, an impressive feat for a tiny, all-volunteer group.

Importantly, the conferences provided unprecedented opportunities to put the faces of the DOB before the public. As the 1960’s progressed, and media interest in homosexuality increased, DOB activists—and therefore lesbians in general—saw their visibility climb as they were “discovered” by local and then national talk shows hungry for provocative and popular topics. Daughters of Bilitis members were able to sharpen their skills at working with newspaper reporters, radio hosts, and television personalities on the still-titillating topic of homosexual sex, particularly among women, without allowing themselves to be trivialized or dismissed. The appearance of a DOB member in print, over the airwaves, or on television, was of critical importance; this media exposure led many women to contact DOB for information about the organization. The conferences provided an unmatched opening for successfully approaching the local media in the host cities, and each successive conference saw an increase in media coverage. Lesbian conferences;first national[national]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyd, Nan Alamilla. Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bullough, Vern L., ed. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gallo, Marcia M. Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Birth of the Lesbian Rights Movement. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Del, and Phyllis Lyon. Lesbian/Woman. 1972. Reprint. Volcano, Calif.: Volcano Press, 1991.

1955: Daughters of Bilitis Founded as First National Lesbian Group in United States

February 19-20, 1966: First North American Conference of Homophile Organizations Convenes

May 1, 1970: Lavender Menace Protests Homophobia in Women’s Movement

November 28, 1970: Del Martin Quits Gay Liberation Movement

November 18-21, 1977: National Women’s Conference Convenes

October 12-15, 1979: First National Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference Convenes

April, 1987: Old Lesbians Organize for Change

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