The Daily Agenda for Saturday, October 19

Jim Burroway

October 19th, 2013

Pride Celebrations This Weekend: Bakersfield, CA; Jacksonville, FL; Nashville, TN (Black Pride); Winston-Salem, NC.

AIDS Walks This Weekend: Atlanta, GA; Austin, TX; Philadelphia, PA; Phoenix, AZ; Watertown, NY.

Other Events This Weekend: Polari Film Festival, Austin, TX; Louisville LGBT Film Festival, Louisville, KY; Chéries-Chéris Film Festival, Paris, France; , Phoenix, AZ; Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, Seattle, WA.

A Daughters of Bilitis breakfast, 1959. L-R: Del Martin, Josie, Jan, Marge, Bev Hickok, Phyllis Lyon.

Daughters of Bilitis Founded: 1955. Phyllis Lyon remembered the phone call in September. Rose Bamberger was on the other end, asking, “would yo like to be a part of the group of six of us that are putting together a secret society for Lesbians?” Lyon recalled later, “We said ‘Yes!!’ Because we would immediately know five more lesbians and we did, which was…. AMAZING.” The “we” were Lyon (see Nov 10) and her partner, Del Martin (see May 5). They had known each other since meeting in Seattle in 1950, and lived together in San Francisco since 1953. But they felt isolated because they hadn’t made any other friends who were lesbians. So when Rose, whom they met earlier that summer through a gay male couple they knew, suggested they start a secret club, Lyon and Martin jumped at the chance. “She wanted it to be in people’s homes and she wanted it to be so we’d be able to dance … so that we wouldn’t get caught up in police raids and we wouldn’t be stared at by tourists and so on. You couldn’t dance in the bars in those days. And she loved to dance. That was the whole idea behind it.”

Over the month of September, four couples, including Martin and Lyon, met to make plans for forming the club. Their first decision to make was the club’s name. Several were suggested: Que Vive, Habeas Corpus, Plus Two, Amazon — but all of them were rejected. Then someone suggested Daughters of Bilitis, named for the work of nineteenth century poet Pierre Louys, whose Songs of Bilitis spoke of lesbian love. Lyon had never heard of him. “Del and I went to the library to look up Bilitis, and of course found nothing. They had said it would be a great name because no one would know what it meant.” The second important decision was how to pronounce it. They rejected Bill-EYE-tis because they thought it sounded too much like a disease. So Bill-EE-tis it was.

The small group met several more times to begin putting some organization behind the idea: bylaws, membership rules (no one under 21, males welcome only as guests on specific occasions), and a tentative schedule. Business meetings would be held on the first Wednesdays of each month at 8:00 p.m. “Qui vive” became the club’s motto, sapphire blue and gold the colors, and an triangular insignia was chosen — that was serendipitous; they didn’t know that the pink triangle marked homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps. And then they named interim officers: Del Martin was president, Noni Frey was vice president, Phyllis Lyon was secretary, Rosemary Sliepen was treasurer, and Marcia Foster was trustee.

The first official meeting took place on October 19, 1955. It was awkward. The women quickly realized that they would be welcoming other women into their homes with whom they had very little in common except their sexuality. But the meeting was also a success, and more followed. As the members became more comfortable with each other, they also became more confident, and within a year began reaching out to the local Mattachine Society and the staff of ONE magazine in Los Angeles. When they joined the Mattachine Society to lobby for a change in California’s sex laws, they began to get involved in local advocacy and cooperation with other homophile groups.

But they remained focused for providing a social and intellectual outlet for women within the larger gay movement. In 1956, DoB began publishing The Ladder, first as a typewritten and mimeographed newsletter, then as a nationally distributed magazine which became a lifeline to lesbians across the country and around the world. Soon, there were DoB chapters in dozens of other cities, including one in Melbourne, Australia, which was the first “openly homosexual political organization” in that country. Beginning in 1960, the Daughters held the first of their biennial conventions in San Francisco.

DoB remained active as a until 1970, when the national organization disbanded but allowed the remaining local chapters to continue under the name. The Ladder survived the national organization by two years, until it went under due to a lack of financial support in 1972. But as many as twenty local DoB chapters continued in several American cities, with New York, Boston and the original San Francisco chapters remaining particularly active. The original San Francisco chapter folded in 1978, and its files, which included both the local and national archives, were turned over to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. At last report, the Boston Chapter, since moved to Cambridge, was still in existence as of 2004, but it appears to have gone dormant sometime since then.

[Source: 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).]

“Downtown” Markleeville, Alpine County’s unincorporated county seat.

Gay Group Plans Takover of Alpine County: 1970. The Gay Liberation Front in Los Angeles hit on a novel idea: What if enough gay people gathered in one location in numbers sufficiently large enough that they could then take over the area through free elections? On October 19, the group issued a two-page statement announcing their dream of encouraging gay people to move to sparsely-populated Alpine County, California. Located high up in the Sierra Nevadas just south of Reno and Carson City, Alpine County only had a little over 400 residents and 384 eligible voters.

The way GLF member Don Jackson figured it, if they could get a similar number of gay people to move, they could have the county all sewn up with little difficulty. And with homosexuality still a criminal act in California (it would remain so until 1975: see May 12), having power over law enforcement would be an important advantage. “A gay Superior Court Judge would have great discretionary powers. A gay district attorney could choose which laws and which criminals he wished to prosecute. … It would mean a … gay civil service and a county welfare department which made public assistance payments to refugees from prejudice,” Jackson told reporters. The numbers were in Jackson’s favor; he already had 479 gay people sign up to move into the county by January 1.

As you can imagine, not everyone was thrilled with the idea, especially the people who already called Alpine County their home. Hubert Bruns, chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, joined four other officials in a closed-door meeting with Gov. Ronald Reagan’s assistant legal affairs secretary to try to figure out what options were available to them. When a reporter asked if they were encouraged by what they learned, Bruns simply replied “No,” then added, “If these people come up here and abide by the laws, there’s nothing in the world we can do to prevent them from coming and registering. Today, to the best of our knowledge, we don’t have gay people here. We do not need that kind of business.”

Bruns predicted a chilly reception. “We thought it was a joke,” Bruns said. “Today we don’t think it is a joke. They will receive a hostile reception when they come.” When asked how he would know which of the new residents were gay, Bruns replied, “We’re going to make every attempt to find out. I’m sure we’ll know some of them.” Other observers noticed that the cool reception wouldn’t just be from county residents. The planned January 1 start date would have coincided with the dead of winter when it’s not uncommon to have twenty-five feet of snow on the ground.

Not everyone in the gay community was on board either. The Gay Liberation Front of Berkeley voted against the proposal. They gave the same reason they gave for everything else they opposed: it was “sexist” and “racist.” And “impractical,” something that they had not been known to be worried about before. Berkeley’s vote didn’t bother L.A.’s Don Kilhefmer though. “All the Berkeley vote means is that they don’t dig the idea, while San Francisco and Los Angeles is going ahead.” But as the deadline approached, the plan fizzled. Good thing, too, because that January the worst snowstorm in nineteen years blanketed Alpine County with more than eight feet of snow.

Postscript: Whatever reservations Alpine County residents had for gay people in 1970, those attitudes changed remarkably by 2008, when Alpine County was one of just three interior counties in California to vote against Prop 8. County residents disapproved of the discriminatory ban on same-sex marriage by 379 to 293.

Robert Reed: 1932-1992. Poor Carol Brady. How could she know that her husband was gay? Actually, Florence Henderson, who played “the lovely lady” in The Brady Bunch, later said she figured it out the first time they shared a screen kiss in the first episode.

Reed was already a well-established character actor, appearing in episodes of more television series than anyone can count. He also worked on Broadway, in Neil Simon’s Barefoot In the Park. Reed never liked his role on The Brady Bunch, thinking that the schmaltzy show was beneath him. He often sparred with the show’s producer, Sherwood Schwartz over the silly scripts and nonsensical story lines. But Reed liked his co-stars and filled the role of father figure to the six younger cast members whenever he could. After the third season wrapped, he even brought the entire cast on vacation to New York and a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth II to London. Most of the cast members knew he was gay, but they were very protective of the fact. After all, in the 1970s it would have been a career-killer. When he died in 1992 of colon cancer and lymphoma, the media reported that he had died of AIDS (he had tested positive for HIV the year before but it had not progressed to AIDS). His Brady family was taken aback by the sensational reporting surrounding his death. As he was a father figure to the Brady cast in life, they returned the favor by being something of a family-figure to him. The cast attended his memorial, while many of his actual relatives stayed away.

Divine: 1945-1988. He was born as Harris Glenn Milstead, but everyone knew him as Divine, the Drag Queen of the Century who practically defined what a John Waters movie was all about. Divine described his character as “just good, dirty fun, and if you find it offensive, honey, don’t join in.” But he drew a clear distinction between his private life and his performance. “My favorite part of drag is getting out of it,” he said. “Drag is my work clothes. I only put it on when someone pays me to.” And yet whether he was in or out of drag, he was always Divine: he even had it put on his passport.

His most famous character, that of Edna Turnbald in the film Hairspray, was so popular that the character has been played by a male in drag in every adaptation since then, whether on the stage or the 2007 film remake. But not all of his characters were in drag; he also appeared as the racist TV station manager Arvin Hodgepile in Hairspray and as Earl Peterson, the fat man driving an Edsel station wagon who picks up Divine while hitchhiking. Divine was nominated for a Razzie Award for playing Rosie Velez in Lust In the Dust, which Tab Hunter both produced and starred in. I think he should have won an Oscar, with Lainie Kazan receiving special kudos for playing Divine’s step sister. He died, much too soon, of heart failure in 1988 at the age of 42.

If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).

And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?


October 19th, 2013

I went to summer camp in 1974 with Reed’s daughter, and it was pretty well known then that he was gay. I never discussed it with her.

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