Tag Archives: Lesbian History

Gay History – April 30th, 1877: Happy Birthday Alice B. Toklas!

April 30, 1877 – Alice B. Toklas (above pictured left) is born in San Francisco.  Toklas will become a lover of Gertrude Stein an icon in the world of modernist literature and they will become one of  history’s most legendary lesbian couples.

Born on April 30, 1877, in San Francisco, California, Alice B. Toklas is best remembered as the companion of writer Gertrude Stein. She was raised in an upper middle-class Jewish family, and at one point aspired to a music career, having studied piano for a long time. She even briefly studied music in college. The death of her mother in 1897, however, led Toklas to take on a caregiving role to her father and younger brother for several years.

Toklas decided to escape her challenging family situation in 1907, choosing to travel to Paris with her longtime friend Harriet Levy. There she met writer Gertrude Stein, and she soon began to assist Stein in her literary work by typing up her manuscripts for her. Their apartment on the Rue de Fleurus became a famous meeting place for artists and writers.

Stein often called Toklas “wifey” and “baby precious” and Toklas referred to Stein as “husband” and “lovey,” according to Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Toklas seemed to take the “wife” term to heart, tackling all of the traditional duties of the day. She ran their household while Stein devoted herself to her craft.

During the period Toklas and Stein were together, they frequently exchanged love letters. Alice was an early riser, and Gertrude, who wrote late into the night, left her tender, passionate notes to cheer up her mornings. “Baby precious Hubby worked and / loved his wifey, sweet sleepy wifey, / dear dainty wifey, baby precious sleep,” Stein once rhymed.

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook came out when Toklas was 77 years old. It contained 300 recipes and became famous because of one special dish, Toklas’s Haschich Fudge (“which anyone could whip up on a rainy day,” as she wrote), in reality the book was more accurately a memoir of the many dinners that Toklas and Stein hosted for their famous friends over the years. In 1963, Toklas really did write an autobiography, What Is Remembered, but it ends abruptly with Stein’s death in 1946, much as Toklas’s own life did in many ways. Their relationship being legally unrecognized, Stein’s relatives plundered the couples’ art collection and left Toklas in poor financial and physical health. She died in poverty in 1967 at the age of 89, and was buried next to Stein in the Peré Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Happy Birthday you Grande Dame lesbian!  

You are not forgotten.

LISTEN:  Stuff You Missed In History Class: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

That Time When the U.S. Naval Investigative Service Went Searching For Our Good Friend "Dorothy"

That Time When the U.S. Naval Investigative Service Went Searching For Our Good Friend “Dorothy”

Nobody knows where and when the expression actually started but everyone knows that being a “Friend of Dorothy’s” is gay slang for a gay man. In the past, stating that, or asking if someone was a friend of Dorothy was a furtive shibboleth used for discussing sexual orientation while avoiding hostility.

Well in the late 1970s, the Naval Investigative Service was investigating homosexuality in the Chicago area. Agents discovered gay men sometimes referred to themselves as “friends of Dorothy”. Unaware of the historical meaning of the term. The Intelligence Service deduced that “Dorothy” must be an actual woman that functioned as a sort of information hub that gay men could use to find other gay men. If they could only find her, they figured they could convince her to talk, perhaps outing many of the gay navy personnel in the process, who in turn, with a little pressure, could no doubt out many others.  The key was simply to find Dorothy.

Of course they failed at finding Dorothy, wasting an amazing amount of taxpayer money paying investigators to pose as gay men.

So now you know.

Gay History – March 30, 1973: Jill Johnston’s “Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution” Calls For Intersectionality in the Gay Community

March 30th, 1973:  Jill Johnston’s book of essays Lesbian Nation is published which calls for a lesbian movement separate from the gay rights movement.

A writer for The Village Voice Johnston is one of  the first leaders of the lesbian separatist movement of the 1970s.

Johnston was a member of a 1971 New York City panel produced by Shirley Broughton as part of the “Theater for Ideas” series. The event was a vigorous debate on feminism with Norman Mailer, author; Germaine Greer, author; Diana Trilling, literary critic; and Jacqueline Ceballos, National Organization for Women president. The event was a showdown of intellect and personality. While Johnston read a poem culminating in on-stage lesbian sex (fully dressed) followed by a quick exit, Greer and Mailer continued to exchange verbal blows with each other and the audience for the rest of the 3½ hour event.

In 1973, she predicted “an end to the catastrophic brotherhood and a return to the former glory and wise equanimity of the matriarchies.” As recorded in Lesbian Nation, Johnston often was at the center of controversies within the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970.

In Lesbian Nation , Johnston discusses lesbian invisibility and advocated a political lesbianism that would bring women together to support one another and have power as a group, while becoming independent of men which she said helped fractured the “gay  rights” movement at that time by separating the two group powers.

 Johnston believed that all males were the same, even gay males.

“Gay men, however discriminated against, are still patriarchs.” Johnston is quoted as saying.

Still Lesbian Nation is an amazing look back at the feminist and gay rights movement of the late 60’s and early 70.  The book itself in a historical aspect should be appreciated as a classic lesbian text, and even with the time difference it offers an  insight of the beginning of today’s compartmentalization within the community and echo’s the argument against the “privilege gay males” today.

Still, as an old-school text, it should be read and  appreciated.

But if you ever wondered when intersectionality in our community began? Here is your answer.

GAY HISTORY – April 7, 1907: Violette Leduc French Lesbian Feminist Author and Fag Hag is Born

Violette Leduc was born in Arras Pas de Calais, France in 1907. Despite being a lesbian feminist she hated being a woman and continually went after gay men. One of them, Maurice Sachs told her to write just to get rid of her. And she did. Her book Le Batarde, (loosely based on her own life) was the story of her upbringing as an illegitimate child which blamed on the sexuality of her mother.

Leduc  was notorious in her chasing after gay men. She once told a friend she wanted to wear a tight body stocking to hold in her breasts and then attach a “strap on” dildo in order to bed gay writer Jean Genet.

Predictably, Leduc’s early childhood is peopled entirely by women. Her mother’s angst at her sickliness and illegitimacy is tempered by the unconditional love of her grandmother, Fideline.

Lesbian writer Simone de Beauvoir in 1945, takes Leduc under her wing and encourages her to write. Leduc’s first novel, L’Asphyxie, is published by France’s premier publishing house, Gallimard, thanks to De Beauvoir’s efforts. After De Beauvoir rejects her sexually, Le Duc writes of her devastation: “She has explained that the feeling I have for her is a mirage. I don’t agree.” The word wounds her in its implication that her starved longing for love is somehow less than real – or in De Beauvoir’s terms, less authentic. “My life lies elsewhere,” Beauvoir writes in a letter to Leduc, and Leduc correctly guesses that her lover, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre “is inside that word ‘elsewhere’”

The juxtaposition of De Beauvoir and Leduc is revelatory in terms of who defines feminism and who actually lives it. Here is Leduc, a woman made feminist by experience: a fatherless, poverty-stricken childhood, a youth spent grovelling for affection and sustenance, her wartime hustle smuggling legs of lamb to rich Parisians. Her autobiography painfully and pointedly underscores her constant alienation, her surfeit of emotion. Ever the outsider, she steals, she smuggles; when she reads and learns, it is in bits and pieces. Days spent writing are imbued with worries about eating, surviving. Uninterested in branding and constructing her own myth, she bluntly tells De Beauvoir that she is not an intellectual. This annoys her mentor, to whom Leduc recalls retorting: “You are an intellectual because you write.”

In 1955 Leduc was forced to remove part of her novel Ravages because of sexually explicit passages describing lesbianism. The censored part was eventually published as a separate novel.

After decades of toiling in obscurity, Leduc would go on to publish the lesbian classic Thérèse and Isabelle.

Leduc’s best-known book, the memoir La Bâtarde, was published in 1964. It nearly won the Prix Goncourt and quickly became a bestseller. She went on to write eight more books, including La Folie en tête (Mad in Pursuit), the second part of her literary autobiography.

Leduc developed breast cancer and died at the age of 65 after two unsuccessful operations.

She was living at Faucon, Vaucluse, at the time of her death.

September 21, 1955: Pioneer Lesbian Group Daughters of Bilitis Founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon

Phyliss Lyon and Del Martin

On September 21st, 1955, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon had been together as lovers for three years when they complained to a gay male couple that they did not know any other lesbians. The gay couple introduced Martin and Lyon to another lesbian couple, one of whom suggested they create a social club.  And thus the first ever social, civil. and political rights organization in the United States the Daughters of Bilitis was born

In October 1955, eight women — four couples — met to provide each other with a social outlet. One of their priorities was to have a place to dance, as dancing with the same sex in a public place was illegal. Martin and Lyon recalled later, “Women needed privacy…not only from the watchful eye of the police, but from gaping tourists in the bars and from inquisitive parents and families.” Although unsure of how exactly to proceed with the group, they began to meet regularly, realized they should be organized, and quickly elected Martin as president. From the start they had a clear focus to educate other women about lesbians, and reduce their self-loathing brought on by the socially repressive times.

The name of the newfound club which was chosen in its second meeting was Bilitis  which is the name given to a fictional lesbian contemporary of Sappho, by the French poet Pierre Louÿs in his 1894 work The Songs of Bilitis in which Bilitis lived on the Isle of Lesbos alongside Sappho.  “Daughters” was meant to evoke association with other American social associations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution. They also designed a pin to wear to be able to identify with others.  The organization filed a charter for non-profit corporation status in 1957, writing a description so vague, Phyllis Lyon remembered, “it could have been a charter for a cat-raising club.”

By 1959 there were chapters of the DOB in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Rhode Island along with the original chapter in San Francisco.

Soon after forming, the DOB wrote a mission statement that addressed the most significant problem Martin and Lyon had faced as a couple: the complete lack of information about female homosexuality in what historian Martin Meeker termed, “the most fundamental journey a lesbian has to make. When the club realized they were not allowed to advertise their meetings in the local newspaper, Lyon and Martin, who both had backgrounds in journalism, began to print a newsletter to distribute to as many women as the group knew. In October 1956 it became The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the U.S. and one of the first to publish statistics on lesbians, when they mailed surveys to their readers in 1958 and 1964. Martin was the first president and Lyon became the editor of The Ladder.

The DOB advertised itself as “A Woman’s Organization for the purpose of Promoting the Integration of the Homosexual into Society.” The statement was composed of four parts that prioritized the purpose of the organization, and it was printed on the inside of the cover of every issue of The Ladder until 1970:

  1. Education of the variant…to enable her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society…this to be accomplished by establishing…a library…on the sex deviant theme; by sponsoring public discussions…to be conducted by leading members of the legal psychiatric, religious and other professions; by advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society.
  2. Education of the public…leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous taboos and prejudices…
  3. Participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychologists, sociologists, and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual.
  4. Investigation of the penal code as it pertain to the homosexual, proposal of changes,…and promotion of these changes through the due process of law in the state legislatures.”

Del Martin had written that the Daughters of Bilitis was a feminist organization from the beginning, focusing on the problems of women as well as problems of the female homosexual; however, in the mid-1960s feminism became a much higher priority to many of the women in the organization. In 1966, Del Martin and Lyons joined the National Organization for Women,

A November 1966 essay by DOB president Shirley Willer pointed out the differences in problems faced by gay men and lesbians: gay men dealt more with police harassment, entrapment, solicitation, sex in public places, and until recently few women were being arrested for cross-dressing. Willer pointed out the problems specific to lesbians were job security and advancement, and family relationships, child custody, and visitation.  Feeling as if their issues were not being addressed by gay organizations.

The Daughters were also affected by the changing times. Younger members did not share the concerns with older members; they were more moved by revolutionary tactics. Problems in the organization of the national governing board were becoming increasingly worse when local chapters were unable to take action on issues important to them without the approval of the national board.  Members became disillusioned and left, and younger lesbians were more attracted to join feminist organizations. By the time the 1968 convention was held in Denver, less than two dozen women attended

The Daughters of Bilitis, which had taken a conservative approach to helping lesbians deal with society, disbanded in 1970 due to the rise of more radical activism.

Both Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon went on to form the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH) in northern California to persuade ministers to accept homosexuals into churches, and used their influence to decriminalize homosexuality in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They became politically active in San Francisco’s first gay political organization, the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, which influenced Dianne Feinstein to sponsor a citywide bill to outlaw employment discrimination for gays and lesbians. Both served in the White House Conference on Aging in 1995.

They were married on Feb. 12, 2004, in the first same-sex wedding to take place in San Francisco after Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the city clerk to begin providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but that marriage was voided by the California Supreme Court on August 12, 2004. They married again on June 16, 2008, in the first same-sex wedding to take place in San Francisco after the California Supreme Court’s decision in In re Marriage Cases legalized same-sex marriage in California.

Del Martin passed away two months later on August 27, 2008  She is survived by her wife Phyllis Ann Lyon

* The complete surviving organizational records of the national office and the San Francisco Chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis are available to researchers as part of the Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin Papers at the GLBT Historical Society, a nonprofit archives and research center in San Francisco.