Louise Young, left, and Vivienne Armstrong

Courtesy of the Dallas Way

There is very little written documentation of lesbians in general and lesbians in Dallas specifically, which might make some think lesbians played little to no role in shaping the history of the LGBTQ Dallas community or the world. Yet, anyone who has been in Dallas for 30 years or more knows, the many contributions the women’s community has made to the LGBTQ rights movement. The rights and privileges the LGBTQ community has now were built on the shoulders of great men and women, who sacrificed their families, friends and jobs to ensure freedom for all.

The first lesbian organization in the United States that has been documented was the Daughters of Billitis, which was formed in San Francisco in 1955. Their philosophy was to work with gay men’s groups to educate, not protest, but there was conflict between the men and women in the clubs, with the women usually given unimportant roles in the joint endeavors. Finally in 1970 the founders of Billitis decided to leave the organization, adopting a philosophy of aligning themselves with the growing feminist movement where they could work for women’s rights and also for lesbian rights.

Deb Elder

The first documented gay organization in Dallas was the Circle of Friends, which started in 1965 in Phil Johnson’s house in 1965. From the beginning, women were welcomed and there was always at least one woman in the group. In 1975, in an effort to become more inclusive, the group changed its name to the Dallas Gay Organization, and in 1976 to the Dallas Gay Political Caucus as members expressed a desire to be more politically active.

The name changed once again in 1981 to the Dallas Gay Alliance (DGA), and that name remained until 1993, when the “L: was added — creating the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance, or DGLA, with little drama.

In 1986, annoyed with the DGA leadership because of its continued sexism and refusal to use the word lesbian, a small group of members, led by Vivienne Armstrong and Louise Young, broke off and formed their own organization: the Dallas Lesbian/Gay Political Coalition (DLGPA).

The fissure that had always existed between women and men continued, although the groups did work together politically — reluctantly sometimes — to fight for the rights of all gays and lesbians.

But by 1984, AIDS had hit Dallas hard, bringing the community together in a way nothing else could. Gay men were dying, but lesbians were losing their brothers and friends to the disease. The gay community leaned more and more on the lesbian community as their leaders began to fall, and the women rose to the challenge, taking on leadership roles in many organizations that provided support physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Today, organizations in the LGBTQ community are consciously diversifying their memberships and becoming more inclusive of all — not just lesbians, but people of color, bisexuals, transgender people and queer people. But in the 1980s, lesbians wanted their own organizations dedicated to the needs and wishes of the lesbian community.

In Dallas, one such organization was Lesbian Visionaries, formed in 1987. It started with a meeting of friends — Deb Elder, Lauren Ramsay, Patty Sipe and Kathy Cloninger — who determined the foundation from which the organization could grow. The first meeting after that, 50 women came to talk about common individual and community goals. They determined that they wanted to “[e]stablish a networking group of formal and informal lesbian leaders to stress the need for coalition and organization of the lesbian community; provide through this group a forum for discussion of lesbian issues (as in ‘what are our issues?’) and provide energy to a process of creative visualization and planning for action,” according to minutes of this first meeting.

Several other known lesbians were mentioned as possible members and leaders of the new organization, as well.

Lesbian Visionaries grew out of this meeting with a goal to “determine what lesbians need and want as individuals and as a community,” Deb Elder, a spokesperson for the group, told Dallas Voice in March 1987. Within a year, the Lesbian Information Line (LIL) telephone line was in place to provide information about upcoming events and activities for women. The organization also worked with Among Friends to bring to fruition the first statewide lesbian conference, held in May 1988 in Dallas.

There are many other organizations that were formed by and for lesbians in Dallas, but their histories remain largely unwritten. The Women’s Motorcycle Club was the first such organization, and aside from riding their bikes together, the members put on shows to raise funds for the AIDS community. Lory Masters and Molly Behannon established The Extra Mile Award, an annual program to recognize women who had “gone the extra mile” in service to the community.

Other organizations that were created included, Women Together, North Texas Women’s Softball Association and The Women’s Chorus, which is still active and still singing today. Each group mentioned, and many others that weren’t, all deserve their own column or book, but there is little to no documentation about most of these groups — other than the word-of-mouth stories of those who “remember when.”

But soon there won’t be anyone still alive who “remembers when” and the stories of these groups. That’s why it is so important to record that history now, to go back and collect your memories and talk about them.

The Dallas Way can help you do that. We gather, organize, produce the history of the LBTGQ community, through taped interviews, oral histories and taking in stories that you have written yourself. Everything is sent to the University of North Texas for archiving and put on the Texas History portal, where it cannot be destroyed or forgotten.

This article is based on Karen S. Wisely’s thesis prepared in 2011 for her Master of Arts degree from the University of North Texas.