Today In History: Another Conference For Creating Change
February 1st, 2009
Today, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is wrapping up it’s annual Creating Change conference in Denver, Colorado. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend. But I did spend some time at our local library, paging through some old LGBT magazines from fifty years ago. That’s where I learned that, by coincidence, another important national conference hosted by leading LGB (not T) leaders was also taking place exactly fifty years ago today.
The following report appeared in the March 1959 issue of The Ladder, which was the official publication of the Daughters of Bilitis, the nation’s first organization for Lesbians. The report was of the ONE, Inc. Midwinter Institute held in Los Angeles on January 31 and February 1.
ONE, Inc, you may remember, published ONE magazine, which was the first national magazine for gays and lesbians. ONE had just come off of a stunning Supreme Court victory one year earlier in which the Court ruled that just because ONE dealt with homosexuality, it was not automatically pornographic because of the unpopular subject matter.
Unlike today’s LGBT conferences which are organized with the goal of changing laws and societal attitudes, this conference was focused on much more pressing needs for the individuals who attended: Are gays mentally ill? (The audience broke into sustained applause on the suggestion that it isn’t) Is it natural? Why is there so much hostility from religion? How do we improve the lives, mental well-being, and relationships of gay men and women? There was even a revealing roundtable discussion on social separatism between lesbians and gay men, a discussion which would foreshadow subsequent debates on political separatism between lesbians and gay men with the rise of the women’s movement in the 1960’s.
One thing that I found interesting is that the esteem held for psychology was never higher than it was then. Psychiatrists, psychologists and psychoanalysts were regarded with the same awe and deference as rocket scientists and astrophysicists. Since this conference was focused on homosexuality and mental health, they naturally took center stage, where their opinions were avidly sought but rarely questioned — except occasionally by each other. A particularly interesting discussion broke out among professional leaders and Dr. Evelyn Hooker, who was in the audience. Dr. Hooker had by then published three groundbreaking studies which suggested that homosexuality was not a mental illness (although because her studies were ongoing, she was coy about making a declarative statement to that effect at the conference). It would be another fifteen years before her work would become the basis for the APA’s removal of homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
This unabridged report from The Ladder provides a fascinating look at the state of the gay community fifty years ago, and it gives us a great perspective on how far we’ve come since then. The author of The Ladder’s report was listed as Sten Russell, which, in fact, was a pseudonym for Stella Rush; “Helen Sanders” was actually Helen Sandoz. Homosexuality was listed as a mental illness and gay bars were banned or shut down under state liquor laws. Much has changed, but there’s still much more to do. People do still get fired from their jobs and shunned by their families.
They say we can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we’re coming from. We’re still on a long journey, but we have traveled many miles in the past fifty years. This is a good opportunity to pause and reflect on that journey.
Today In History: 1958 Broadcast On “The Homosexual In Society”
November 24th, 2008
Fifty years ago today, on November 24, 1958, several people gathered in the studios of KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, to participate in a two-hour broadcast on the problems that gay people faced in society. This is not only believed to be the first radio broadcast to deal favorably with gay people, it is also believed to be the first to include an actual gay person to speak directly of his experience. The first hour also featured the mother of a gay son.
(Update: I received the following info in an email from James Sears, author of Behind the Mask of the Mattachine: The Hal Call Chronicles and the Early Movement for Homosexual Emancipation. He wrote that first TV broadcast with an acknowledged homosexual was in Los Angeles by the vice-president of the Mattachine Society on the Paul Coates Show in 1956. His face was disguised. The first to feature an acknowledged homosexual on the east coast was March 10, 1956 with Tony Segura on the show (but he was in a mask). Also, WRCA of NYC produced a series of 3 panel discussions on its Open Minds on Aug 24, Sept 29 1956 and a third on Jan. 12, 1957.)
Del Martin wrote the following account of the 1958 broadcast for the January 1959 edition of The Ladder, which was the official publication of the Daughters of Bilitis. Just last summer, Del became a June bride when she married Phyllis Lyon, her partner of 56 years. Del passed away last August.
Del’s article chronicling that broadcast is reproduced below.
2-Hour Broadcast on Homophile Problem
“The Homosexual in Society”, a two-hour broadcast presented by KPFA-FM, a non-profit listener-subscription radio station in Berkeley, California, during November brought such popular acclaim that the program was repeated a month later and will be issued in pamphlet form as well.
The program consisted of two separate panel discussion sound tapes, the first covering “The Role of the Homosexual as an Individual and as a Member of Society” and the second “The Role Society Should Play” in solving the homophile problem.
THE ROLE OF THE INDIVIDUAL
Hal Call, publications director of the Mattachine Society and editor of the MATTACHINE REVIEW, opened the discussion by outlining the educational program of the organization to lead “to a better understanding of the homosexual and other forms of variance where there is no great harm to the social order.”
According to Dr. Blanche Baker, San Francisco psychiatrist, there is much controversy on the subject, “even in the medical profession.” There are those who feel it is a neurotic problem and others who call it glandular, or even a hereditary problem.
“For myself, from many years of work, I consider the homosexual first of all a human being,” she stated. “I believe in individual adjustment of each particular case. Factors leading to homosexuality lie deep in the individual nature. It is a psychological problem in which early childhood has its effect. All people have a certain amount of maleness and femaleness in their constitution, and child experiences tend to throw us to one side of the scale or the other.”
FIRST REACTION OF SHOCK
When questioned by Elsa Knight Thompson, moderator, Mrs. Leah Gailey, housewife and mother, replied, “My first reaction was a universal one — shock. There was ostracism to face for me and my son. It was clearly — shock. But basically I loved my son, so I decided I would try to understand. Fear is based on the unknown, and much fear disappears as one learns to understand.
“There is much literature on the layman level for anyone to read,” she pointed out. “It is just a matter of understanding and accepting.”
Mr. Call declared that the problem of homosexuality is very often closer to all of us than many realize — a member of the family, a neighbor, a co-worker, a friend.
“Approximately every tenth adult may be predominantly homosexual in orientation,” he stated. “This covers the entire strata of society, every intellectual and economic Ieve1.”
Mr. Call said that there had not necessarily been an increase in homosexuality in recent years, as some have supposed, but rather a greater awareness of the subject.
HOSTILITY — CAUSE OR EFFECT?
Moderator Thompson posed the problem of “hostility” in the homosexual. Does it stem from the individual because of his fear of being “different”? Or is it a result of society’s attitude?
Mr. Call said that the homosexual adopts attitudes as result of the society in which he lives. He may effect certain mannerisms of hostility toward society because of its attitudes and also because of his inability to accept himself.
According to Mrs. Gailey, the homosexual’s hostility is based on fear from society and guilt from self. The homosexual has both problems to face, she said.
Dr. Baker pointed out that in her field she works on self acceptance so that the individual can relax and be more comfortable in the world he lives in.
When asked if her clients wished to rid themselves of their homosexuality or if they sought acceptance, Dr. Baker said, “Most of those who come to me want to get rid of this approach to life. If the heterosexual component potential is large enough to function with, fine. But many cases just don’t have the potential.”
ARE HOMOSEXUALS GIFTED PEOPLE?
Dr. Baker said she had no statistics on the subject, that she herself worked with small numbers of people, “But the ones who come to me are artists — versatile, gifted people, not just bread, meat and potatoes people.”
Mr. Call did not consider this a just evaluation. He said that homosexuals are no more gifted or talented than any other group, but that perhaps the homosexual has more opportunity to develop creative and artistic talents since he doesn’t have the economic pressure of providing for a wife and family.
Elsa Knight Thompson suggested that, as in the case of any other minority group, there is more concentration to excel in order to counteract criticism.
“This is true job-wise,” Mrs. Gailey declared. “Because of his fear of detection, the homosexual puts forth an utmost effort to do his best.”
On consideration of the short duration of most homosexual relationships, Dr. Baker asserted, “The friction between homosexual couples is due to the hate in themselves and an unhappy adjustment to life. The over-emphasis on a sexual level would keep them from adjusting on other levels.”
Mr. Call pointed out that there were many lasting homosexual relationships that are not known or recognized, and Dr. Baker admitted, “We are all too conscious of those who do not get along together and don’t know about those who do.”
Mr. Call concluded the first panel discussion with a resume of legal attitudes in Europe and the United States. In England last September the Wolfenden Report recommended that homosexual acts between consenting adults no longer be considered a crime provided they are conducted in private, do not involve minors, no force or violence or fraud is used and do not offend public decency. In April, 1955, in our own country the American Law Institute in its draft of a Model Penal Code recommended essentially the same things.
In Denmark a change in the law was made in 1933, he said, but while not illegal, the stigma attached to homosexuality still remains. Persecution is particularly severe in Germany and Austria today despite previous progress and is reported to be the result of our own American occupation. In this country we have 48 different states with 48 different sets of laws concerning certain homosexual acts ranging from misdemeanor penalties of 30 days to maximum penalties of life imprisonment.
BASIS OF AMERICAN SEX LAWS
Dr. Karl Bowman, psychiatrist who until recently was director of the Langley Porter Clinic of the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco, opened the second discussion with some historical background on our present laws, which he said are “largely traced back to ancient Hebrew laws.” The Christian religion took over the Jewish code which was extremely restrictive pertaining to sexual behavior. And the English law, on which United States law is based, stemmed from the Christian code.
“If this is so, it is my contention,” Dr. Bowman added, “it is time to re-examine our laws in the light of present knowledge and recommend modifications.”
WHAT IS A HOMOSEXUAL?
Dr. Frank Beach Jr., anthropologist and professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, deplored the fact that nowhere in the previous discussion had there been a definition of the term “homosexual”. He recounted the varying degrees of homosexual behavior: the latent individual who has tendencies but who manifests no overt behavior, the individual who has one or two experiences in his life time, those who find satisfaction in both homosexual and heterosexual behavior, and those with exclusive
Dr. Bowman pointed out that in the armed forces mere diagnosis of latent homosexuality makes an individual unsuitable and subject to an undesirable discharge which interferes seriously with the individual’s ability to secure a position. Some one who has never violated any law and who has never had a homosexual experience thus becomes a victim, he said.
Relative to the problem of who is a homosexual, Morris Lowenthal, San Francisco attorney, spoke of the 1955 law passed by the California state legislature that any bar or restaurant becoming a “resort for sexual perverts” may have its license revoked. The problem of the proprietor is two-fold, he said, since the 1951 California Supreme Court decision in the Stoumen vs. Reilly case upheld the civil right of the homosexual to meet and eat or drink in any public bar or restaurant, while the new law in direct conflict prohibits the use of these premises as a gathering place for homosexuals. Mr. Lowenthal also posed the issue as to how the bartender or owner can determine the homosexual tendencies of his patrons.
CAUSES OF HOMOSEXUALITY
Dr. Beach said that hereditary factors may be involved, since in some genetic studies the incidence of homosexuality was higher in identical twins. There is also evolutionary evidence based on observation of other mammals. Exclusive, overt homosexuality does not occur in any other species but man, he pointed out, however. In cases of error in identification of sex at birth, Dr. Beach added that it was extremely difficult to reverse the sex if it was established in the mind of the individual.
Dr. Bowman agreed that there were multiple causes, that heredity, physical condition and psychological conditioning all played an important role.
“The crux of the matter,” asserted Dr. David Wilson, attorney and psychiatrist of the University of California School of Criminology at Berkeley, “is the law making something a crime. Society passes a law because it feels threatened, but it doesn’t work and in no way affects the amount of homosexuality. If the law doesn’t work, it should be reappraised and handled in a realistic manner.
“The propensity is there or it could not develop. We can not change basic individual factors. Unless we know why, we can’t pass laws to curb the incidence of homosexuality.”
Mr. Lowenthal advanced the theory that homosexuals have been discouraged in cultures when an increase in population was needed for survival and encouraged when it was necessary to curb the population.
“Naive assumption!” Dr. Wilson interjected. “Homosexuals are not going to be the productive members of society in any case.”
Dr. Beach also rejected the idea, “Human beings don’t behave this rationally.” Prohibitions appear in many societies, he added.
Dr. Bowman considered the population theory a rationalization. “Cultures that allow homosexuality freely have in many cases had a higher increase in population than those who have not.”
“Rejection of the homosexual is purely on an emotional basis and tied up with our general repressive attitude toward all sex behavior,” he added.
VAGUE AND AMBIGUOUS LAWS
In our criminal laws, many of which are not enforced, it was pointed out by Attorney Lowenthal that no reference is made to homosexuals specifically. Vague and ambiguous laws are used and abused against the homosexual resulting in his subjection to blackmail.
Dr. Bowman pointed out that the California law reads, “Anyone guilty of the infamous crime against nature…” The use of such wording has led to long controversies, he stated.
Dr. Beach took exception to the “crime against nature.” The capacity for homosexual activity is inherent in nature — in man’s biological constitution — and there is therefore nothing “unnatural” in homosexual activity, he said.
“It would appear then that the law is vague, open to loose interpretation and capable of injustice to the individual where invoked against him, bearing no fruit from the social standpoint,” Elsa Knight Thompson, the moderator, put in.
“Laws to prevent crimes of Violence and violation of children would satisfy my requirements of a fair law,” Dr. Wilson asserted. “Homosexuality is a medical and social problem, not a legal one.”
Mr. Lowenthal declared that a strange situation existed where it has been granted by the California Appellate Court that the homosexual is no menace to society and has no particular propensity toward crime, yet at the level of police and certain legislators he is declared a menace and attempts are made to whittle away the civil rights of the individual.
“The mere existence of a law can be a threat to an individual even though it may not be enforced or can be overturned at a higher court level,” Dr. Wilson said. However, he did not hold out much hope for immediate action. The legislators won’t change the law until they understand more. It will take a great deal of time and education, of which this program is a step.
Pointing out some of the abuses of the law such as police harassment, registration as sex offender and entrapment, Mr. Lowenthal said he believed that if these injustices were brought to the attention of the public, it might offend the decency of most people.
Dr. Wilson pointed out that a change in the law would not eliminate altogether the problem of blackmail because of the moral issue, though the degree would certainly be much less.
Moderator Thompson summed up the discussion, “Homosexuality is not a question of crime. If society is to solve the problem it must be done with enlightenment, understanding and a scientific approach at the individual level.”
OVERWHELMING RESPONSE TO BROADCAST
According to officials of KPFA, almost all of the heavy mail received after the first broadcast congratulated them on their courage and observed that they would undoubtedly be attacked for the program. However, they did not have a single attack for presenting the program — technical criticism, yes, but no indictment.
Because of the overwhelming response to the program, “The Homosexual in Society” is being made available in pamphlet form and can be obtained from Station KPFA, 2207 Shattuck, Ave., Berkeley 4, California, for $1.00.
— Del Martin
CA’s First Married Same-Sex Couple: Del Martin’s Inspiring Essay from 1956
June 17th, 2008
The first same-sex couple to be married in San Francisco were Del Martin (left, 87) and Phyllis Lyon (right, 83). They have been together since 1952. As I said earlier, Del and Phyllis were the perfect choice for this historic first.
In 1955, Del and Phylis, along with six other women, founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first major lesbian organization in the United States. Del was the group’s president, and Phyllis edited the DOB’s newsletter The Ladder beginning the following year.
I’ve been able to obtain a facsimile copy of the very first edition of The Ladder, from October, 1956. This mimeographed newsletter includes an essay by Del Martin in which she explains why they founded the Daughters of Bilitis. It was a very prescient essay, and it provides us with a great perspective on the historic changes that these two women helped to create. Today, we all are privileged to enjoy many of the fruits from Del and Phyllis’ hard work.
MESSAGE FROM THE PRESIDENT
Since 1950 there has been a nationwide movement to bring understanding to and about the homosexual minority.
Most of the organizations dedicated to this purpose stem from the Mattachine Foundation which was founded in Los Angeles at that time. Members of those organizations — the Mattachine Society, One, and National Association for Sexual Research — are predominantly male, although there are a few hard working women among their ranks.
The Daughters of Bilitis is a women’s organization resolved to add the feminine voice and viewpoint to a mutual problem. While women may not have as much difficulty with law enforcement, their problems are none the less real — family, sometimes children, employment, social acceptance.
However, the lesbian is 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.
But surely the ground work has been well laid in the past 5½ years. Homosexuality is not the dirty word it used to be. More and more people, professional and lay, are becoming aware of its meaning and implications. There is no longer so much “risk” in becoming associated with [text missing].
And why not “belong”? Many heterosexuals do. Membership is open to anyone who is interested in the minority problems of the sexual variant and does not necessarily indicate one’s own sex preference.
Women have taken a beating through the centuries. It has been only in this 20th, through the courageous crusade of the Suffragettes and the influx of women into the business world, that woman has become an independent entity, an individual with the right to vote and the right to a job and economic security. But it took women with foresight and determination to attain this heritage which is now ours.
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. Why not discard the hermitage for the heritage that awaits any red-blooded American woman who dares to claim it?
Del Martin, President
Daughters of Bilitis
Our Godmothers Exchange Vows
June 16th, 2008
The first same-sex marriages took place in California, beginning at just one minute after 5:00 p.m. local time.
This is Phyllis Lyon (right, 83) and Del Martin (left, 87) of San Francisco. They have been together for fifty-five years. They, along with six other women, founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955. The Daughters were the first major lesbian organization in the United States. Phyllis edited the DOB’s newsletter The Ladder beginning in 1956. Del edited The Ladder from 1960 to 1962. The Daughters eventually disbanded in 1970 after having established chapters all across the United States
In 1964, they helped found the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, bringing together national religious leaders and gay and lesbian activists for a national discussion of gay rights. Phyllis was also the first open lesbian to serve on the board of the National Organization for Women in 1973. Meanwhile, Del was heavily involved in getting the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
When Del and Phyllis met in 1950, the very idea that their relationship would someday be recognized by the state must have seemed utterly outlandish. But these pioneers have made a real difference for millions of gays and lesbians the world over, not just here in the United States. You might say that they are godmothers to all of us and our movement. After all these years of their hard work and dedication to the cause of lesbian rights, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate couple to be the first to marry in San Francisco.
We not only offer our congratulations, but also our deepest thanks for all that Phyllis and Del have done, and all that they represent.