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News + PoliticsPhyllis Lyon, lesbian rights icon, passes at 95

Phyllis Lyon, lesbian rights icon, passes at 95

From underground 1950s gatherings to same-sex marriage victory and beyond, she lived the arc of the gay liberation movement.

It’s impossible to imagine the queer rights movement without Phyllis Lyon, who passed away today at the age of 95 of natural causes. Along with her wife and partner of 54 years Del Martin, who died in 2008, Lyon lived the arc of the US gay liberation movement, from illegal underground gatherings in the 1950s to becoming the faces of the same-sex marriage drive in the 2000s.

According to an obituary submitted to the Bay Area Reporter by lesbian rights leader Kate Kendell, Lyon was born in Oklahoma in 1924, moved to the Bay Area, and graduated with a degree in journalism from UC Berkeley (she edited the student-run Daily Californian). She went on to an early career as a reporter, worked with Reverend Cecil Williams at Glide Memorial Church, co-founded National Sex Forum, and became an influential sex education professor at Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.

But it was after she met Martin and they moved in together in the Castro that her major contributions to lesbian and gay rights activism began. Together with others in 1955, they started the Daughters of Bilitis society, “the first political and social organization for lesbians in the United States.” The Daughters’ frank and celebratory newsletter “The Ladder,” subscribed to by women all over the country, was the equivalent of samizdat in a time when homosexuality was punished with harsh jail sentences and public shaming. “The Ladder” ran from 1956-1972, and with a combination of art, poetry, and politics acted as a lifeline for lesbians isolated by society.

The pair published major book Lesbian/Woman in 1972, became the first out lesbians to join the National Organization for Women, were active in SF’s first official political organization the Alice B. Toklas Club, saw the Lyon-Martin Health Services organization established in their name by LGBT health advocates, and continued fighting for queer rights for decades.

Lyon and Martin wed in 2008, in a ceremony conducted by Gavin Newsom. Photo by Nick Gorton.

But perhaps their biggest moment in the spotlight came toward the end of their lives, when they received a marriage license from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to become the first same-sex couple to wed during the 2004 Winter of Love. Weathering the excruciating somersaults of the marriage saga of the 2000s, they were married again in 2008. Photographs of them tying the knot in instantly legendary lavender and turquoise pantsuits were beamed around the world, and helped the push for same-sex marriage proceed. Martin died a few months later, with Lyon at her side. Same-sex marriage was declared legal throughout the United States by the Supreme Court in 2015.

From the Bay Area Reporter:

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.

I was fortunate to hang out with Phyllis in 2015 at the GLBT History Museum, at a special reception for an exhibit featuring Daughters of Bilitis artifacts and ephemera. She had me and my husband in stitches through most of our conversation—sweet, sharp, and perfect in the role of elder statesperson of the movement. Rest in Power, Phyllis!

UPDATE: The National Center for Lesbian Rights has put out the following statement:

NCLR Mourns Loss of Civil Rights and LGBTQ Icon Phyllis Lyon, 95

SAN FRANCISCO, CAToday, the National Center for Lesbian Rights mourns the loss of a beloved friend and LGBTQ civil rights icon. Phyllis Lyon, 95, passed away peacefully from natural causes at her home in San Francisco. Lyon, along with her wife Del Martin, was one of the nation’s first and most visible lesbian rights activists who dedicated her life to combating homophobia, sexism, violence, and racism. Phyllis’ contributions to the LGBTQ equality movement will be felt for many decades following her passing.

“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.”

In 2004, Lyon and Martin became the first same-sex couple to be married in the state of California, and subsequently became plaintiffs in the California marriage equality case, represented by NCLR, which helped to ensure that the fundamental right to marry under the California Constitution belongs to all individuals, including same-sex couples. Phyllis and Del were married in California former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom on June 16, 2008, after 55 years together.

“Our country has lost a civil rights icon and one of the most legendary figures in the LGBTQ movement,” said NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter.“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.”

Phyllis began her work in civil rights activism after she received a degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley in 1946. Shortly after graduating, Lyon met her partner Del and the two began working on behalf of lesbians in their community. Lyon and Martin both devoted their lives to working towards full LGBTQ equality, healthcare access, advocacy on behalf of battered women, and issues facing elderly Americans. Their many contributions over the past five decades helped shape the modern LGBTQ movement.

Lyon and Del are credited by the venerable Reverend Cecil Williams for helping shape an LGBTQ-inclusive vision for Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco – including programs that helped shelter and protect LGBTQ youth who sought refuge in San Francisco to avoid discrimination and persecution in their hometowns. The couple was also co-founders of the Daughter of Bilitis, the first political and social organization for Lesbian in the United States. In 1956, they launched “The Ladder,” the first lesbian newsletter, which became a lifeline for hundreds of women isolated and silenced by the restrictions of the era. Activists established Lyon-Martin Health Services named in honor of Phyllis and Del in 1979.

“Phyllis Lyon is truly an iconic figure in the history of LGBTQ and women’s rights. Her life was marked by courage and the tenacious belief that the world must and could change,” said Kate Kendell, former NCLR Executive Director. “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 Prop 8 was struck down in 2008. Few individuals did more to advance women’s and LGBTQ rights than Phyllis Lyon. From the moment I started as Legal Director at NCLR, Phyllis and Del were fixtures in my life. Our monthly lunches gave me the chance to learn at their feet about my own history and the story of much or our movement. I got to be a part of not one but two weddings with them! First in 2004 and then in 2008. After Del’s death in August of 2008, I still had Phyllis in my life, even as dementia took a lot of her memory, she never lost her spirit, joy or sense of humor. I will miss her every day, but am comforted knowing she and Del are finally together again.”

“Phyllis was a uniquely and remarkably courageous, passionate and humble leader who never lost her sense of humor, compassion or generosity,” said Donna Hitchens, NCLR Founder, and former San Francisco Superior Court Judge. “We are deeply indebted to her for her trailblazing, risk-taking and for the opportunities she created for all of us.”

The family requests that gifts in honor of Phyllis be made to the Lyon-Martin Health Clinic: https://www.gofundme.com/f/save-lyonmartin-amp-womens-community-clinic

A celebration of life honoring Phyllis is being planned by the family.

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Marke B.
Marke Bieschke is the publisher and arts and culture editor of 48 Hills. He co-owns the Stud bar in SoMa. Reach him at marke (at) 48hills.org, follow @supermarke on Twitter.

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