BAY AREA LESBIAN HISTORY
During World War II, women enjoyed new freedoms and self confidence, as they moved to urban centers to perform work that had previously been done by men. Women were able to move about unchaperoned and live together. Lesbians began going to nightclubs, such as Mona’s Club 440 in San Francisco, where there were male and female impersonators. It was at this time that the first lesbian subcultures started to form and lesbians began to develop an awareness of themselves as a community. When the war ended, and the soldiers returned, women were forced out of their jobs, but many lesbians remained in the area.
The 1950’s were dominated by the repression and atmosphere of fear known as the McCarthy era. Gays and lesbians were targeted along with leftists accused of being communists. This Lavender Scare was characterized by pervasive propaganda that gays and lesbians were perverts; laws were passed making homosexuality and cross dressing illegal. There were frequent bar raids and arrests that were accompanied by people’s identities being revealed in the newspapers, and people frequently lost their jobs as a result. Out of this atmosphere, some lesbian couples in San Francisco began meeting in 1955 as a private social club in their homes, which they named the Daughters of Bilitis (an intentionally obscure name). Rosalie Bamberger, a Filipina woman, came up with the idea, and Mary (surname unknown), a Chicana woman, was another founder. Their fame was eclipsed by the nationally prominent couple Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who worked for lesbian feminist and gay rights throughout the 50 years of their relationship. The DOB published the magazine The Ladder from 1956 to 1972, which reached thousands of lesbians across the country. The working class women left DOB early on because of fears of being public; they were more vulnerable also as gender-nonconforming and cross dressing women, which the middle-class DOB women discouraged. The familiar split between those that wanted assimilation into society and those demanding that society accept everyone for how they present were ongoing tensions in the early days of the “homophile” movement.
During the 1960s, lesbians were active in every progressive movement. They played a prominent though often invisible or underrated role in the civil rights and Black liberation movements; Native American self determination; free speech; union organizing; and anti-war work during the Vietnam era. In the early days of the feminist movement in the mid-1960s, lesbians were discouraged from being “out” in NOW, the national feminist organization; strong, assertive women were routinely being accused of being “dykes” and the fear was that having known lesbians in the movement would destroy their credibility and impede progress. Lesbians were involved from the beginning of the gay liberation movement that took off after Stonewall in 1969 but often worked behind the scenes and were generally invisible in the media at that time. Lesbian bars continued to be heavily surveilled and raided but continued as the main source of social connection.
The 1970s saw an explosive growth of lesbian presence in the Bay Area, as women came out in unprecedented numbers and migrated here to be part of the social, political and cultural activities proliferating in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and the North and South Bays. Lesbian feminists created a never-before-seen alternative culture that included music, visual and performing arts, film, literature, theater. They experimented with collective living and business structures, which was challenging in a capitalist system that still barely recognized women as full human beings. Lesbians in the Bay Area were in the forefront of “nontraditional work” for women, teaching each other skills and developing apprenticeship programs that helped women gain access to high paying union jobs in the building trades. There were countless lesbian-owned auto repair shops and printing presses. Lesbians strongly encouraged each other in “feminist literacy,” to read and write about our real lives, and the numerous women’s bookstores, restaurants, bars and cafes were venues for women to read and distribute their works. The bookstores, cafes and restaurants also functioned as information centers with bulletin boards that helped women locate jobs, housing, social activity, political engagement. Lesbians were often the founders of organizations focused on the health and safety of women and girls: schools, camps, health clinics, legal advocacy services, rape crisis centers, domestic abuse shelters, drug and alcohol recovery programs.
Lesbians in the Bay Area came from many different backgrounds, races and ethnicities, with different bodies and gender expressions, thrown together in ways they would not have been elsewhere. The progressive politics of the culture encouraged working internally and externally on racism, classism, disability access and mental health stigmas among other issues of inclusivity and solidarity decades before these issues came to the forefront of mainstream culture. They were the founders of the fat liberation movement, critiquing Western white standards of beauty, the medical establishment’s treatment of people with different bodies, and accessibility issues for large people. Lesbians were in the forefront of body positivity and sex positivity work. Lesbians were also involved in anti-apartheid South Africa divestment, anti-nuclear protests, environmental work and supporting anti-imperialism movements in Central America. Bay Area lesbians were a major source of support to gay men who were the first victims of the AIDS crisis, and were leaders and activists in the ACT UP movement. Lesbians founded food banks, hospices and other support services. They provided nursing and health advocacy for gay men, and were instrumental in establishing San Francisco General’s Wards 86 and 5A, which became international models of compassionate care.
Lesbians have been trailblazers and leaders in almost every progressive movement in the Bay Area. They left an historical legacy that includes a more humane worldview and vision of society. Though lesbians made significant contributions to the LGBTQ community and mainstream society, their lives and work have remained largely invisible.