In the first act of The Daughters, a play premiering at the San Francisco Playhouse, the character Mal is trying to get the guests at the first Daughters of Bilitis meeting interested in politics and the organization’s bylaws rather than dancing and flirting.
She exhorts them to think of the future, and when she says, “Lesbians could run for public office. We could get married,” three of the characters burst out laughing at such a crazy idea.
The year was 1955. The Daughters of Bilitis (named after a fictional contemporary of Sappho) was the first political and social lesbian society in America, and Mal is loosely based on Del Martin, who with Phyllis Lyon, started the first chapter of the organization. They were the first same-sex couple to be married in San Francisco.
At the time, being gay was a crime, and women wanted to be able to go somewhere besides a bar where a raid could mean being arrested.
Playwright Patricia Cotter said she wanted to imagine what happened during that first meeting.
“I hadn’t seen a play or a history of my people. I loved thinking about a time that changed the world because women wanted to meet each other. Isn’t that wild?” she said at a café near her house in the Castro. “Also, I feel like Phyllis and Del haven’t gotten their due as civil rights leaders. And I wanted to see a bunch of women onstage having a blast.”
The same actors from the first act of The Daughters appear in the second. Now it’s 2015, and they’re at the last night of San Francisco’s last lesbian bar, The Lexington Club. One character, Gina, angry that there is no bar left for lesbians, has scant patience for Ani, a young woman who has never been to a lesbian bar before, meeting women online instead.
She calls the Lexington “quaint” and finds the word femme “tired,” and lesbian “oldy timey.” When asked what comes to mind when she hears the word, Ani says “Pony tail, softball, golf, knee brace–”
“Do you have any that are not sports injury-related?” another character, Leslie, asks.
To write the second act, Cotter talked to trans men and women along with lesbians and gay men and people who identify as gender-fluid (as Ani does) trying to get different points of view.
“There’s a lot of stuff that pokes at people, which is interesting. The language is changing so quickly, and some people are put out at how things are changing,” she said. “It’s like, change is change—why not get on board with all of it? The reality is if me not being assumptive about pronouns means that I’m making other people comfortable, why is that a big deal?”
Director Jessica Holt says she thinks the different perspectives Cotter got in her interviews add a lot to the play.
“Ani represents the millennial generation with a fluid approach to identity and sexuality times,” Holt said. “Language has changed and there’s a host of specific identity terms whereas in the ’50s it was all lesbians and gays, and butches and femmes. Now our understanding is not so binary.”
To research the first act, Cotter visited Brooklyn’s Lesbian Herstory Archives, where they had mimeographed copies of the DOB newsletter, The Ladder, and she spent time at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco where she saw a letter the writer Lorraine Hansberry had written to The Ladder. Cotter based a character in the play on Hansberry.
Key to her research was Marcia Gallo’s book, Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movements.
Now a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Gallo says she was working for the American Civil Liberties Union in California when she met Martin and Lyon at a meeting in the ’80s. They supported her idea to write about the DOB for her dissertation topic, she says.
“They said men don’t get it right—it takes a lesbian,” Gallo said. “They opened their Rolodex to me and gave me names and addresses of members and cosigned a letter that I had their support.”
The organization was unique in its dual focus on women’s rights and lesbian rights, Gallo said, when there was lots of sexism in the gay rights movement and homophobia in the feminist movement.
“They were so creative and committed around civil rights, and they reached out to women of color,” Gallo said about Lyon and Martin. “They kept going and helped organize meetings with candidates pressing them on gay issues. Their contributions are huge.”
Whenever Gallo comes back to San Francisco, she visits Lyon, who at 94 lives in the house in San Francisco’s Castro district she shared with Martin.
Cotter also met with Lyon, who she describes as a “delight.” Cotter brought her laptop, intending to take notes, but then decided rather than grilling Lyon, to just “absorb the energy” of being with her in the living room where DOB meetings were held.
The house is an amazing place, says Shayne Watson, an architectural historian who runs the GLBT Historical Society’s Historic Places Working Group.
“From my perspective as an architectural historian, it should be a historical landmark,” she said. “That site gives me goose bumps.”
People look to 1969, when patrons fought back against a police raid at Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn as the beginning of the gay rights movement, Watson says, but the DOB was hugely significant as well.
Watson helped to get landmark status for an early San Francisco gay bar, the Paper Doll, and she saw the closing of the Lexington (the first lesbian bar she went to) as significant as well.
“It was felt as a giant blow to the community, “she said. “It was a loss of an inclusive, welcoming public space where people could meet each other.”
A safe place to meet each other was the driving force for the DOB, Cotter says. In the first act of The Daughters, the women panic when there is a knock on the door (it turns out to be another guest). In a raid, women could be charged with prostitution or conspiracy to commit sodomy. If arrested, your name and address were published in the paper, which meant many of the women lost their jobs and maybe their families. Cotter read about a woman who was released after Martin told her to plead not guilty, but that was rare, she says.
“There was so much shame, and people didn’t know they had any rights at all,” Cotter said. “Part of the reason the meetings were so important was to get information out, so at least you know your rights.”
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Holt had never heard of the DOB before. Working on the play, she and Cotter talked about the importance of knowing this history.
“It’s really civil rights history,” Cotter said. “I’ve also seen a ton of theater where we hear about the gay male perspective, and I’m a huge fan of it, but I would like to be included, and not just one character with one point of view, but a broader narrative and just kind of show there’s a million different ways to be a queer woman.”