Lesbian pioneer Phyllis Lyon dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Thursday April 9, 2020
Share this Post:
Phyllis Lyon, shown in 2016. Photo: Joyce Newstat
Phyllis Lyon, shown in 2016. Photo: Joyce Newstat

Fearless lesbian activist icon Phyllis Lyon died peacefully at her home in San Francisco on April 9 of natural causes. She was 95.

Few individuals contributed more to issues impacting LGBTQ, women's, civil rights and the rights of elder Americans than Ms. Lyon and her partner of 58 years, Del Martin. Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin were the first same-sex couple to marry in California on June 16, 2008. Weeks later, on August 27, 2008, Ms. Martin died in San Francisco, with Ms. Lyon at her side. Ms. Martin was 87.

The couple's wedding in 2008 was not their first. In 2004, when then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom determined to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in California, Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin agreed to be the first couple to receive such a license. Their story, 54 years together and a lifetime of love and commitment, reverberated around the world. While that marriage was invalidated by the California Supreme Court, the ability to marry in 2008 meant a great deal to Ms. Lyon.

"I am devastated to lose Del, but I take some solace in knowing we were able to enjoy the ultimate rite of love and commitment before she passed," she said, according to an obituary submitted by Kate Kendell, a longtime friend of the couple.

"Phyllis Lyon is truly an iconic figure in the history of LGBTQ and women's rights," Kendell wrote in an email statement to the Bay Area Reporter. "Her life was marked by courage and the tenacious belief that the world must and could change. She and her love of over 50 years moved from the shadows to the center of civil life and society when they became the first couple to marry in California after Proposition 8 was struck down in 2008. Few individuals did more to advance women's and LGBTQ rights than Phyllis Lyon."

Thursday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) issued a statement, saying she was "heartbroken" to hear the news.

"Phyllis, together with her beloved late wife, Del Martin, was on the vanguard in the fight to make real the promise of equality for LGBTQ Americans since the earliest days of this struggle," Pelosi stated. "As a journalist, community organizer, and clarion voice for justice, Phyllis fought always to hold our nation accountable to its Founding values — whether working to decriminalize homosexuality, promote women's health, outlaw employment discrimination in San Francisco or ensure that our city respected the dignity of all people."

San Francisco Mayor London Breed called Ms. Lyon "a true champion of LGBTQ rights."

"Phyllis changed countless lives for the better," Breed stated. "She was at the forefront of the LGBTQ rights movement — fighting for a world in which people can marry who they love and live without fear of discrimination. Through decades of organizing, activism, and writing, Phyllis helped advance civil rights protections, created robust support networks for LGBTQ people, and established political and advocacy organizations that continue her work to this day. Importantly, Phyllis was a symbol of hope and courage for San Franciscans and people around the world."

David Campos, a gay man and former San Francisco supervisor, called Ms. Lyon's passing "a tragic loss."

"She was a pioneer for LGBTQ rights when that was a dangerous thing to be," said Campos, who's chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party. "I think that the community owes her a great deal of debt for what she did. It is a sad day for us."

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), also expressed his condolences.

"We lost a giant today," he said in a statement. "Phyllis Lyon fought for LGBTQ equality when it was neither safe nor popular to do so. Phyllis and her wife, Del Martin, played a crucial role winning the rights and dignity our community now enjoys. We owe Phyllis immense gratitude for her work. Rest in power."

Out state Senate President pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) praised Ms. Lyon's legacy.

"The world, and the LGBTQ community, has lost one of its most fearless leaders in the passing of Phyllis Lyon," Atkins stated. "She and her partner, Del Martin were, both separately and as a couple, icons as gay-rights activists and as feminists. They were both critical individuals in my early years as a college student seeking positive role models for me as a lesbian and as a young feminist. They will long be remembered as incredible women who made an indelible mark on history."

In 2009, Ms. Lyon spoke with the B.A.R. about the couple's involvement in the fight for marriage equality. Though the couple participated in every pivotal moment of California's same-sex marriage fight, Ms. Lyon said that nothing in their activist history suggested that they would turn to the state to legitimize their relationship.

"A lot of women thought that marriage was a big fart," Ms. Lyon said at the time, recalling the mindset of feminists working in the 1970s who viewed marriage as an institution that kept women trapped in traditional roles. Before the couple's February 2004 nuptials, Ms. Lyon said, she placed marriage low on her list of priorities in the struggle for gay rights.

"We hadn't given it much thought," Ms. Lyon said. "We were much more interested in making sure that gays and lesbians could have jobs and not get fired from them just because they were gays and lesbians. And the same with housing and the same with almost everything."

Still, when Newsom and Kendell, then the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, asked Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin to be the first couple to marry during the Winter of Love, they agreed.

"Well, sure," Ms. Lyon remembers saying in response to Kendell's request, shortly before the ceremony took place on February 12.

NCLR officials mourned the passing of Ms. Lyon.

"Phyllis Lyon was a giant. She was an icon, a trailblazer, a pioneer, a role model, and a friend to the many of us who looked up to her," said NCLR Executive Director Imani Rupert-Gordon. "Her activism changed what we thought was possible, and her strength inspired us. Her vision helped forge our path and made organizations like NCLR possible. And although the path is lonelier without her, we know the way because of her."

Added NCLR legal director Shannon Minter, "Our country has lost a civil rights icon and one of the most legendary figures in the LGBTQ movement. I was proud to represent Phyllis Lyon and her longtime partner, Del Martin, in the historic 2008 California Supreme Court case that struck down California's marriage ban. Getting to know Phyllis and Del was the honor of a lifetime. Our movement would not be possible without their unflinching courage and willingness to live openly and proudly as lesbians, even at a time when doing so subjected them to vicious stigma and persecution."

Early life

Ms. Lyon was born on November 10, 1924, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She spent her formative years in Sacramento, California and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1946 with a degree in journalism. As an undergraduate she served as editor of the legendary Daily Californian student newspaper. During the 1940s, she worked as a reporter for the Chico Enterprise-Record, and during the 1950s, she worked as part of the editorial staff of two Seattle magazines.

Ms. Lyon later worked as an administrative assistant to the Reverend Cecil Williams at Glide Memorial Church. She is credited by Williams with helping him shape a more inclusive vision for Glide. Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin were a pivotal part of Glide's inclusivity for LGBTQ people, according to the obituary.

Ms. Lyon was a co-founder of the National Sex Forum, where she served as a director for 19 years. She was a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, where she was an innovator in sex education.

The couple met when Ms. Martin joined the staff of the Seattle magazine where Ms. Lyon was working and the two became lovers in 1952. The couple relocated to San Francisco and moved into a flat on Castro Street together on Valentine's Day 1953.

In San Francisco, the women embarked on a lifelong career of activism. In 1955, along with three other lesbian couples, they co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis. Known as DOB, it was the first political and social organization for lesbians in the United States. Shortly after founding DOB, the couple began publishing The Ladder, the first monthly lesbian publication focused on politics, fiction, poetry and connecting lesbians across the country. The founding of DOB and the publication of The Ladder, continuously from 1956-1972, were acts of immense political courage at a time of unchecked harassment and violence directed at "homosexuals," largely at the hands of law enforcement and political officials, the obituary noted.

The publication of Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin's book, "Lesbian/Woman" in 1972 changed countless lives. Many lesbians found a positive description of lesbian lives for the very first time when they discovered this book.

The women were the first open lesbians to join the National Organization for Women and helped form the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in Northern California to persuade ministers to accept lesbians and gay men into churches. They pushed to decriminalize homosexuality in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Phyllis Lyon, right, cuts the wedding cake after her June 16, 2008 marriage to Del Martin, left. In back is then-San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

SF activism
Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin became active in San Francisco's first gay political organization, the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, which influenced then-mayor Dianne Feinstein to sponsor a citywide bill to outlaw employment discrimination for gays and lesbians. The two backed Pelosi when she was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1987. Today, Feinstein (D) is the senior U.S. senator from California.

In 1979, activists established Lyon-Martin Health Services named in honor of the two lesbian pioneers. Today, the clinic is part of HealthRIGHT 360, which announced in March that it was moving it from a Mission Street location to the agency's headquarters a short distance away. Officials acknowledged there would be service reductions as a result of the move, which is being made for financial reasons.

In 1989, Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin joined Old Lesbians Organizing for Change. They were honored by the ACLU of Northern California in 1990, reflecting their decades of commitment to civil rights and civil liberties locally and nationally. Both were named delegates to the White House Conference on Aging in 1995. At that conference, they successfully lobbied to have lesbian and gay issues on the agenda.

Because of their historical importance and engaging personalities Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin were featured in many documentary films. "No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon," tells their life story and is available on many platforms. "One Wedding and a Revolution" looks at the backstory of their 2004 union. Their lives and contributions were also chronicled in the award-winning 2006 book "Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement" by Marcia M. Gallo.

Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin donated their papers to the GLBT Historical Society. Terry Beswick, the society's executive director, told the B.A.R. that the materials are invaluable.

"Phyllis Lyon's contributions to LGBT equality are immeasurable and trace the history of modern San Francisco," Beswick wrote in an email. "Going back 65 years to the 1955 founding of the homophile organization, Daughters of Bilitis, and through her historic marriage to Del Martin at City Hall in 2004, with Phyllis's passing, it is truly the end of an era. At 83 linear feet, the Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin Papers, 1924-2000, are among our most extensive and treasured collections in the archives of the GLBT Historical Society."

The family wishes to thank the devoted caregivers and community members whose commitment gave Ms. Lyon joy and security in her final years.

Survivors are her beloved sister Patricia Lyon, called Tricia by Phyllis; her devoted daughter, Kendra Mon and son-in-law Eugene Lane, dubbed by Phyllis an honorary lesbian; granddaughter Lorri Mon; grandson Kevin Mon, his wife Ellen, and Ms. Lyon's great-granddaughter, Kexin Mon.

In addition to her family, a community of millions mourns the loss of this fierce "Lyon" who made the freedom of women and LGBTQ people her life's work, the obituary noted.

The family requests that gifts in honor of Ms. Lyon be made to the Lyon-Martin Health Clinic.

A celebration of life honoring Ms. Lyon is being planned.

Listen to a 2015 KALW radio broadcast of Eric Jansen's "Out in the Bay" interview with Phyllis Lyon and late wife, Del Martin. (Interview recorded in their home in 2006)

Updated, 4/9/20: This article was updated to include comments from the GLBT Historical Society and other community leaders.

Editor's note: If you liked this article, help out our freelancers and staff, and keep the B.A.R. going in these tough times. For info, visit our IndieGoGo campaign.