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Hidden Heroes: Billye Talmadge

Billye Talmadge, 1990s. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Deakins

Billye Talmadge was raised in Oklahoma by her mother. She never knew her father. She was the niece of Herman Talmadge, a former U.S. Senator and Georgia Governor known for his conservative views.  

When Billye was in college she became aware that she was a lesbian. The Dean of Women provided her with a book that helped Billye accept her sexuality. But she struggled with a full understanding of being a lesbian. This struggle turned out to shape her career as a lesbian educator and activist. Thankfully, Billye’s mother supported her while not completely understanding her sexuality.

When Billye graduated from college, she took a job with Boeing. In the process of getting a security clearance, she was investigated by a federal agent. He discovered that she was a lesbian but did not report her. This was when Billye discovered the legal consequences of her sexuality.

Billye went on to earn 2 PhDs and worked with blind and deaf children. Realizing that she would be fired if she was found out to be a lesbian, she changed her last name to Tallmij. She later recounted how you could readily lose your teaching certificate if you were suspected of being a “communist or a homosexual.” The teaching awards that she won did not lessen the risk of her being fired.

Billye’s activism for lesbian rights came about when she learned of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). Bilitis was a fictional contemporary lesbian of the Greek poet Sappho living on the Isle of Lesbos. DOB began as a social group to keep lesbians from being arrested in bars. Billye helped transform the DOB into an activist group.

Billye helped the DOB develop educational outreach to lesbians with scripts to follow if they were arrested. She also helped make lesbians aware of their civil rights. The goal was to eliminate the intimidation that lesbians faced when confronted by authorities.

Throughout her career, Billye had to use Tallmij as her work name so she could continue to be employed. While the fight for lesbian rights was successful, lesbians still needed to keep their sexuality in the closet. Billye passed away in 2018 seeing many of the gains of lesbians being threatened by populist fear mongering.

Just imagine the courage that someone like Billye must have to fight for their identity in the face of legal obstacles. Just imagine how fragile is the progress toward a more free and equal society when politicians use their voices to push sexual identities back in the closet. What if we continued our progress toward being a more free and equal society by accepting the broad array of sexual diversity in our society?

 

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“You know, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender – people are people. – Judith Light (Actress)