Historiography Saturday: Beth Elliott

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Transgender lesbian folk singer Beth Elliott was the youngest ever officer of the San Francisco chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, where she reigned as Vice President from 1971-1972 before being forced to resign due to controversy over a sexual harassment claim. Although she helped organize the West Coast Lesbian Conference for the following year, she left after her scheduled performance following protests; the keynote speaker even referred to her as a ‘male transvestite’ and a ‘rapist’. Elliott went on to compose a memoir under a pseudonym (rereleased under her own name) and advocate against sodomy laws and other exclusionary policies.

Locating reliable information on Elliott online is a challenge because she has been a polarizing figure for over four decades; thus, she is a useful case study in the challenge of writing a piece on someone when narrative-shaping facts are in dispute. Reading blogs composed by members of the contingent that has continually opposed Elliott’s inclusion in lesbian spaces gives one a very different impression of her than does reading transgender blogs. This is a rare puzzle: most entries to this blog are plagued by nothing worse than minor factual inaccuracies or a dispute over the identity marker that best suits someone from an alternate cultural context. When researching Elliott and other figures at the center of community culture wars it pays to be prudent and pay special attention to the veracity and agendas of available sources.

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