Women You Missed in History Class: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon

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Del Martin (1921-2008) and Phyllis Lyon (1924- )

The initial idea of Women You Missed in History Class was to feature one woman each day during the month of March, but in the case of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, you really can’t talk about one without talking about the other.  Both of these trailblazing LGBT rights activists fully deserve their own spotlight in this project, but since they shared so much during the 56 years they spent together, I’m hoping they wouldn’t mind sharing this post.  Both Martin and Lyon studied journalism at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1940s, but first met in 1950 while they were both working at the same magazine in Seattle, Washington.  Lyon remembers, “I was working in Seattle at a magazine, and she got hired a year later.  I peeked out of my office and saw her walking down the hall in a dark green suit, and she was carrying a briefcase.  I had never seen a woman with one before.  I was impressed.”  By 1952, they had become partners, and in 1953, they moved to San Francisco, where their activism began.

In San Francisco, the couple found it difficult to build networks with other lesbians.  In 1955, Martin, Lyon, and three other couples formed the Daughters of Bilitis, the first social and political organization for lesbians in the United States.  They took their name from The Songs of Bilitis, a collection of poetry focusing on lesbian themes.  The name was purposefully chosen because it was so obscure.  As Lyon later noted, “If anyone asked us, we could always say we belong to a poetry club.”  By 1960, the Daughters of Bilitis had chapters in cities all over the country.  The group published a newsletter, The Ladder, from 1956 until 1970.  The Daughters of Bilitis disbanded in 1970 as many other, more radical lesbian groups began forming, and Martin and Lyon moved on to other projects.  They became active with the National Organization of Women and worked to combat homophobia within the organization.  Martin was the first openly gay member of NOW’s board of directors.  Martin and Lyon were also active in the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women and the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club.

Martin and Lyon were married twice.  Their first wedding was in 2004, when the mayor of San Francisco announced that the city would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  On February 12, 2004, Martin and Lyon became the first legally married gay couple in San Francisco.  A few months later, the California Supreme Court invalidated their marriage, saying that the mayor had overstepped his legal authority.  Martin and Lyon were plaintiffs in the subsequent lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.  In 2008, the California Supreme Court overturned its ban, and the mayor of San Francisco invited Martin and Lyon to City Hall to perform a second wedding for them.  Once again, they were the first gay couple to be legally married in San Francisco.

Del Martin died in August of 2008, just a few months after her second wedding to Lyon, and a few months before the passage of Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage.  After her death, the mayor ordered that flags in San Francisco be flown at half-staff.  Phyllis Lyon, now 92 years old, still lives in California.  She is, quite understandably, much less active in the LGBT rights movement than she once was, but still pays close attention to all the progress being made.  Reflecting on her decades of activism, she says, “The ability to marry someone of the same sex and all that information out there on the [Internet] has led to huge changes.  I’m so glad to be alive and be part of this new exciting world.”

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