September 26th, 2013
AIDS Walks This Weekend: Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti, MI; Chicago, IL; Indianapolis, IN; Jackson, MI; Jacksonville, FL; Lansing/East Lansing, MI; Mt. Pleasant, MI; San Diego, CA; Seattle, WA; Wilmington/Rehoboth, DE.
Shirley Willer: 1922. Her childhood was hard. Her father, a respected judge in Chicago, was also an alcoholic and violent abuser. When Shirley was nine, her mother packed up and left, taking Shirley and her younger sister with her. As Shirley got older, she managed to scrape enough money together to go to nursing school, where she learned about other women who shared some of the same romatic desires she did. When she told her mother that she was a leasbian, her mother went out and purchased a copy of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliniess, a remarkably understanding act for a woman in the 1940s.
Willer’s oversized personality matched her physicality. She was heavyset with short cropped hair and tailored clothing, all of which made her “butch” — a term she hated for its stereotypical role-playing connotations. “Because I was heavy,” she later explained, “I looked much better in tailored clothes.” Her appearance got her trouble with the police one night while she was headed to a gay bar. “Just the assumption that I was gay was justification enough for one policeman to pick me up by the front of my shirt and slap me back and forth. He called me names, the same ones they used now. ‘You god-damned pervert. You queer. You S.O.B.’ … I was so angry at the policeman I could have killed him! I wasn’t frightened; I was angry! He had no right to do that to me! and that’s been my attitude all my life. They have no right!”
After watching a male nurse die after horrible treatment at a Catholic hospital because he was gay, Willer was driven to become an advocate for gay rights. “Barney’s death probably had a great deal to do with my aggressiveness,” she said. She and five other women talked about forming a group, but they dropped it after deciding it was too dangerous, given the political climate of the McCarthy era. But by the late 1950’s, Willer began hearing about other homophile groups around the country, including a chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis in New York City. So she decided to mov to the Big Apple in 1962. Upon arrival, she wrote to the DOB chapter, and Marion Glass answered with details about their next meeting. Willer and Glass met at that meeting and quickly became lovers and partners. The two turned out to be perfect complements to each other: Glass was as thoughtful as Willer was brash. Together, with Glass serving as Willer’s mentor and advisor, Willer become the chapter’s president in 1963, and three years later she was elected the national president of DOB.
Willer’s passion as DOB president was in travelling across the country planting as many DOB chapters as possible. She was aided in that effort through the generosity of an wealthy closeted lesbian, known only as “Pennsylvania,” who wanted to contribute to DOB anonymously. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, co-founders of the original Daughters of Bilitis group in San Francisco, were among the very few who had met “Pennsylvania.” Lyon remembered, “She was so nervous when we started talking about lesbians… up until then, she had been very poised and sophisticated, but when we started talking about lesbians she couldn’t even look at us. She started blushing and fidgeting.”
But over a five year period, “Pennsylvania” wrote more than $100,000 in checks of $3,000 each, made out to differnt DOB members each time. Those checks, in turn were turned over to the national organization with Willer being the conduit through whom those checks flowed. “Pennsylvania’s” money was first used to turn the DOB’s newsletter The Ladder into a a slick, professionally typeset magazine available on newsstands. She also funded the establishment of new DOB chapters across the country, along with Willer’s travel expenses to get them started. Willer said, “There wasn’t an operating chapter of the Daughters that didn’t receive at least six thousand dollars to put toward a building fund or toward office expenses or toward publications. … Nobody was supposed to talk about our benefactor or what she did. And this woman will never take credit for her contribution to the movement, which amounted to more than one hundred thousand dollars. But she does have the satisfaction of being able to go down the street and see a couple of guys or a couple of girls walking hand in hand, and seeing the Mafia lose control of the gay bars, of seeing homosexuality become much more acceptable.”
But Willer’s traveling in those pre-cell phone/pre-Twitter/pre-text message days meant that members of already existing chapters weren’t able to contact her when problems arose. In 1968 when Philadelphia police raided a popular lesbian bar, the local DOB chapter could’t reach Willer to coordinate a response. The resulting inaction led to the fracturing of Philadelphia’s homopbile movement and the closure of DOB’s chapter there (see Aug 7). Another sticking point was the DOB’s official position against picketing, a controversial position which put Willer, who wanted to see more direct action in the organization, in a no-win position. “This split between those who wanted to make noise and those who wanted to do things quietly affected me very directly,” she recalled in 1989. “During the second half of the 1960s, I was more and more at odds with the official position of DOB.”
It was increasingly clear that for the local chapters to thrive, they needed the freedom to respond quickly without having to wait for approval from the national organization, particularly when the local chapters wanted to act outside of the DOB’s restrictive one-size-fits-all policies. Marion Glass (under the pseudonym Meredith Grey) proposed a massive reorganisation in the August 1968 issue of The Ladder. Under this proposal, all DOB chapters would be autonomous and the national organization’s sole role would be limited to publishing The Ladder. But there was a hitch: the change would require the approval of the membership, and that issue of The Ladder still had no announcement of where that year’s national DOB Convention would be held. When the DOB’s finally convened their biennial convention in Aurora, Colorado, the short notice meant that only fifteen members showed up. With so few members on hand to make such a momentous decision, the group decided to defer until the next biennial convention, which wouldn’t occur until 1970.
Frustrated by the delay, Willer decided not to stand for re-election as the Daughters’ national president. She also withdrew from gay activism altogether, and with her witdrawal, “Pennsylvania’s” dollars stopped flowing as well. Two years later, the DOB did finally vote to disband its national organization and set all of its individual chapters free. But by then, it was too late. Only a few DOB chapters remained, and The Ladder only had another couple of years before it too went belly-up. Meanwhile, Willer and Glass retired to Key West, Florida, where they ran a rock shop for tourists and became involved with the growing local LGBT community. Willer died on New Years Eve in 1999.
[Sources: Del Martin and PHyllis Lyon. “Shirley Willer (1922-1999).” In Vern L. Bullough’s Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context (Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 2002): 203-205.
Eric Marcus. Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights: 1945-1990. An Oral History (New York: HarperCollins, 1992): 127-135.
Marcia M. Gallo. Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006). ]
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