Lavender, Menaced

IF YOU WERE STRAIGHT in 1968, you would have had no idea the United States was on the cusp of the Stonewall riots. Gays were largely invisible, closeted, and discreet, and their appearance in public was checked by violence and vice squads. The gay organizations that did exist, loosely affiliated as the homophile movement, emphasized respectability and assimilation. There was only one organized lesbian group in the country, the Daughters of Bilitis, and it was named after a collection of nineteenth-century French poems written by a man. Originally intended as an underground social club, a less dangerous alternative to gay bars—the name, a reference to a fictional lover of Sappho’s in Pierre Louÿs’s Songs of Bilitis, was selected for its obscurity—the Daughters had modest aims. The group hosted meetings and events for gay women, and, with the help of a small, all-volunteer staff, published a monthly magazine called The Ladder.

Though it never reached more than 3,800 subscribers, The Ladder quickly became a site of divisive political conflict. In its pages, readers and writers argued passionately about the fundamental questions of gay women’s identity: Were lesbians essentially defective, suffering? Were they an oppressed group who should be fighting for their rights? Should they align themselves with gay men or with straight women? Factions formed along political and generational lines, and tensions between different camps spurred vicious arguments. The magazine’s editorship changed hands at least three times as differing concepts of lesbianism struggled for power. The infighting culminated in 1968 and foreshadowed the gay liberation struggle that would explode into public view a year later.

The Ladder’s early issues, published at the height of the Lavender Scare, were resolutely nonconfrontational. Issues featured romantic poetry and love stories, and reviews of books and films that could conceivably have lesbian themes—though these interpretations were often somewhat stretched. Copies were sold wrapped in brown paper, like porn, and contributors wrote under pseudonyms. In its first years, The Ladder declined to use the word lesbian, considering it too derogatory; instead, the magazine referred to its readers as variants.

Most gay publications in the 1950s and early ’60s were exclusively for men; women had fewer avenues to financial independence, and therefore fewer opportunities to avoid heterosexual life. The Ladder was aimed at lesbians stuck in the closet, reading secretly while their husbands were at work or their children napped. The magazine offered advice on how to come out and how women could keep themselves safe in the process. “I’m glad as heck that you exist,” the playwright Lorraine Hansberry wrote in a letter to the editors in The Ladder’s first year.

It’s hard to overstate how much the early Daughters were motivated by fear. There were only two copies of The Ladder’s subscriber list, which had to be moved from place to place to avoid raids by the San Francisco Police on the DOB’s headquarters. Decades later, the group’s founders learned the FBI had been monitoring them almost from their first meeting. Seeking to minimize attention, the Daughters had a dress code (no jeans), and women who had worn men’s clothes all their lives were pressed to wear dresses and skirts.

By the early ’60s, women began writing in to express their frustration with the conservatism of the editorials. In 1963, Barbara Gittings, from the DOB’s New York
chapter, took over the editorship of The Ladder and redefined it as an openly gay magazine, printing the words “A Lesbian Review” on the cover, in bold font. Gittings and other DOB members joined gay men’s groups to picket the White House, calling for an end to the government’s exclusionary hiring practices.

But many Daughters were dissatisfied with the homophiles’ understanding of gay rights as gender-neutral: After all, when Gittings marched on Washington for federal jobs for gay people, she wasn’t challenging the idea that women, gay or not, should be confined to work as secretaries and typists. By the mid-’60s, a majority of DOB members reported that women’s issues were more important to them than gay issues.

After heated arguments, Gittings was ousted and a new editor, Barbara Grier, was appointed in 1968. Grier worked to align The Ladder with the emergent second-wave feminist movement, removing the subtitle “A Lesbian Review” from the cover, replacing the lesbian love poetry with articles on feminist politics and philosophy and ignoring the male gay-rights struggle entirely.

This, too, displeased The Ladder’s readership. When they’d stood with gay men, they had felt invisible; when they stood with straight women, they did too. If they couldn’t be women in the gay movement, and they couldn’t be gay in the women’s movement, where were lesbians to go?

It was the beginning of the end for The Ladder, and for the DOB. That summer, at the Daughters’ 1968 convention in Denver, fewer than two dozen women showed up. At now’s next conference, after Betty Friedan decried the “lavender menace” of lesbianism, a group of twentysomething lesbians burst onto the stage holding signs that read, “THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT IS A LESBIAN PLOT!” None of them were wearing skirts. The face of lesbian rights had changed: It was younger, angrier, and less willing to compromise. The times had outgrown the Daughters of Bilitis, and the group disbanded in 1970.

Moira Donegan is a writer living in New York.