This Day In History: September 21

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On September 21, 1955—during an era when most homosexual people are deeply closeted—four lesbian couples meet at a private San Francisco house and launch America’s first lesbian-rights group. The eight women, including host Rosalie “Rose” Bamberger and her partner, Rosemary Sliepen, founded the Daughters of Bilitis initially as a social alternative to the frequently raided bar scene. The group would grow into a national advocacy organization.

The working-class women who founded Daughters of Bilitis were not comfortable going public at first, as they faced a hostile society and were subject to surveillance not only by local police, but by the CIA and FBI. The founding board included president Del Martin; vice president Noni Frey; secretary Phyllis Lyon; treasurer Sliepen; and trustee Marcia Foster.

“It wasn’t like we had a community,” Martin said in an interview with author Nan Alamilla Boyd for her book Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. “It was like there were places to go for entertainment and there was a certain ambiance, but there was not the sense of community that we have developed since.”

The group got its name from an erotic collection of poems called The Songs of Bilitis. The female Bilitis character was romantically associated with Sappho, the female Greek lyric poet who became a symbol of lesbianism. In 1956, Daughters of Bilitis started publishing The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian magazine in the United States, which was discontinued in 1972. During the mid 1960s, societal conflicts over feminism and homosexuality began to cause strife in the group, which eventually lost traction and petered out by the end of the 1970s.