Not far from where playwright Patricia Cotter lives in the Castro District, a bronze plaque in the sidewalk reads: “1953: Lesbian couple Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon move into their first home together in San Francisco on Castro Street. They help establish the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian rights organization, in 1955.”
Just a few blocks away, on 19th Street, is where the Lexington Club, affectionately known as the Lex, served cheap drinks from 1997 to 2015, when its closure marked the end of the last lesbian bar in San Francisco.
These two chapters of local lesbian history comprise the two acts of “The Daughters,” Cotter’s comedy whose San Francisco Playhouse Sandbox Series world premiere runs through Nov. 2 at the Creativity Theater. The Chronicle met with Cotter at Spike’s Coffee and Teas, also on 19th Street, to talk about the arc of history she traces in the show.
Q: What was the initial impulse behind “The Daughters”?
A: I think it was really at the closing of the Lex, which, honestly, wasn’t my bar. I had come to San Francisco later, so by the time I got here that wasn’t my coming up and coming out, going to the Lex. But it seemed like an icon leaving, its closing.
Q: What gave you that feeling?
A: It was a lot of women I know really grieving that it was closing. And then it’s like, “When was the last time you were there?” “Seven years ago, eight years ago.” … So if we’re not going — but then also the question, “Do we need it? Do we need a lesbian bar?” Because any bar can be a lesbian bar; it doesn’t specifically have to be one. But there’s something lost when you know this is the place where you’re going to be welcome.
I would have people in this neighborhood say to me, travelers, “Where’s the closest lesbian bar?” There isn’t one. Actually, there’s tons of queer bars, but (not one) specifically where you know it’s your place, where it’s created for you.
I think when (the Lex) closed, it got me thinking about lesbian history. I hadn’t really seen my history anywhere. I knew about Phyllis and Del. (They were the first legally married same-sex couple in California in both 2004 and 2008.) The play isn’t at all a biography of Phyllis and Del. It’s more of a tribute to the women who changed the world — in a room, at a party.
I was just so impressed with the risks they took. The women who started the Daughters were so different from each other. That’s all they had in common: that they were gay, that they wanted to meet other gay women, either to date or to just have friends, and they couldn’t do it in bars. They could, but you’re in danger of getting arrested. You’re in danger of a raid. There were tons of tourists at that time who would just come and stare at people.
We had a party for the Daughters, trying to get the word out (about the show). My friends threw it at their house, and there were tons of lesbians and straight people and gay guys. It was just a party, and I thought, “Oh, 60 years ago this was transgressive — to gather in someone’s home.”
It is specifically my history, but I’m kind of embarrassed by how little I knew about it.
Q: How much did you know before you wrote?
A: I think my knowledge was like 25%. I interviewed a ton of different lesbians … younger lesbians, older lesbians, women my age, and, for the second act, trans men, to get a point of view that felt accurate and honest.
Q: What surprised you from the research?
A: The women in this group were teachers, government workers, so they really had everything to lose by coming out. If you got arrested, they put your name in the paper, they put your address in the paper, your place of work — that’s everything. That’s one of the things we’ve been working on in the production — to create that sense of danger in the room, like the danger of getting into the room and the danger of leaving the room. Then you get this break when you’re in the physical space.
You’re taking a big risk. I think that was partly one of the things I learned as well: what a need it is to be yourself and have an honest, authentic representation of who you are. How much courage it would take to make that happen and then invite people into your home! It takes courage to go, but they didn’t know who would show up. They had no idea.
Q: And what did you learn from your interviews?
A: For young women, the relationship to the word “lesbian.” Some women were very much like, “I don’t need it. I don’t like it. It doesn’t make sense for me.” Other young women still really wanted to claim it, saw value to it.
Q: What’s your own feeling about the word, for yourself?
A: I like it. It’s never been unappealing to me. My whole feeling about words in general — and that’s basically what the second act is about — is the idea of “you tell me.” Whatever works for you, I want to include. At a certain point, we needed a word to identify each other and find each other. Now what if we don’t need that word any more? But what if you want it?
I’m excited by the changing of language, and I’m excited to incorporate that in my life. I don’t understand a resistance to it. To me, if “lesbian” goes away, which it seems like maybe someday it will, I will miss it. I will grieve it. But if that’s the natural way we’re moving, if that’s where momentum is taking us … .
Q: What do you think of a San Francisco that doesn’t have a bar dedicated to lesbians?
A: I can’t believe it. If there were no gay male bars — Look at my neighborhood! That’s all there is! — it would be front page news. (The Lex) got a little coverage, but not that much.
Q: For the two groups of women from the two different eras in your play, in what ways are their concerns the same, and in what ways have they evolved?
A: Jessica (Holt, the show’s director) has been helping me find the thread, where they connect. The idea in the first act — they’re trying to claim their space. In the second act, they’re losing that space. In just the space of 60 years — that’s not a lot of time to have your space, experience your space and then, “Wait! It’s gone already! It’s gone so fast!”
Also, in the first act, they’re trying to, “If we want to be ourselves, we have to change. We have to be presentable, and we have to not scare the outside world.” In the second act, it’s more, “We are part of the outside world. We don’t need to worry about that anymore, which is why we don’t need this space.”
And then there are the simple connections of wanting to be in love and wanting to find your person and wanting to have fun — and then the other thing is not wanting to talk about politics, but there’s someone saying, “You know what, guys, it is political.” … Even though in the first act and the second act there’s this thing of “Oh my god, can we just have a good time?” it’s like, “Yes, we can, but somebody has to be the person going, ‘Hold up. We have to take this seriously.’”
“The Daughters”: Written by Patricia Cotter. Directed by Jessica Holt. Through Nov. 2. $30-$40. Creativity Theater, 221 Fourth St., S.F. 415-677-9596. www.sfplayhouse.org
Article by Lily Janiak for the San Francisco Chronicle. Link here.