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LGBTQ+ Living History: The Turbulent ’50s

September 17, 2019
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In a six-part series, we highlight a few of the moments, movements, and people that made their mark on Cal’s LGBTQ+ history. We move through the decades, beginning in an era of secrecy and continuing through today.

The turbulent ’50s and ’60s

In the 1950s and most of the 1960s, few organizations existed for LGBT individuals. If you were lucky, you found a social circle or an underground community in Berkeley, San Francisco, or Oakland. Maybe you went to certain coffee shops or the White Horse Inn on Telegraph. Otherwise, “it could be a lonely life,” says William Benemann ’71, M.L.S. ’75, former Berkeley Law archivist, author, and founder of the Gay Bears Collection in the University Archives.

The early 1950s was also the time of the “Lavender Scare,” which refers to then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s executive order to fire gays and lesbians from federal government employment. The government treated these individuals with as much skepticism as they did suspected communists in the Red Scare.

During this time, gay or lesbian writings and activity were considered perverted and deviant by the masses. The psychiatric community called “homosexuality” a mental disorder.

Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin embrace at a marriage ceremony officiated by Governor Gavin Newsom at San Francisco City Hall, June 16, 2008. | Image by Blaise Freeman; Liz Mangelsdorf, The Chronicle

None of that stopped Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon ’46 from falling in love and moving to San Francisco in 1953. As an alternative to the lesbian bar scene, where they feared getting arrested, Marin and Lyon founded the Daughters of Bilitis, a “secret social club for lesbians.”

The Daughters grew to become the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States, with chapters across the country. Its newsletter, The Ladder, evolved into a prominent magazine. Meanwhile, Martin and Lyons enjoyed more than 60 years of partnership.

by Heather R. Johnson