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    11.13.fromtComing Together in Celebration of Phyllis Lyon’s Birthday

     – By Dr. Betty L. Sullivan –

    What a difference a life can make.

    In 1955, when Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin founded the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States, there were just 8 members. As historian Lillian Faderman wrote of the organization, The Daughters of Bilitis, “Its very establishment in the midst of witch-hunts and police harassment was an act of courage, since members always had to fear that they were under attack, not because of what they did, but merely because of who they were.” With this and other brave efforts, Phyllis and Del set into motion the worldwide lesbian liberation movement that continues to evolve, growing ever larger and stronger. Their life’s work empowered not only lesbians, but also all members of our LGBTQIA community.

    The Daughters of Bilitis represents just one achievement of the remarkable Phyllis Lyon, who is celebrating her 90th birthday (November 10) this week. Her accomplishments and those of her wife Del, who passed away in 2008, have transcended in their significance to the highest of levels. When we check the timelines and historic accounts, we are overwhelmed by what Phyllis and Del achieved, both as individuals and as leaders among leaders. The story that unfolds—some of which is shared in this issue of the San Francisco Bay Times—covers more than half a century. It includes bitter struggle, sadness, joy, triumph, and an unrelenting commitment to continue the good fight for human rights and social justice.

    This week, and in the weeks to come, we hope you will join in the “season” of celebrating Phyllis’ birthday, which will be observed in private and public gatherings by her family, friends, colleagues, and community at large. Many of us have our own “Phyllis story” to treasure and tell. I look forward to hearing yours! As for mine, I would like to take you back to a June day in 1978…

    On that day, my parents were paying no attention to what I was reading in the backseat of their car as we followed a flat, meandering two-lane highway through the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. We were traveling north toward Oxford, the university town where Ole Miss is located and the annual Yoknapatawpha Conference happens. Banking on their familiarity with seeing me carry books around, my guess was neither my mom nor dad would notice at all as I intently read passages from Lesbian Woman by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.

    frontttI was married, six-months pregnant, and pondering in that backseat what to do about the undeniable fact that I was in love with a woman. While hoping this book might be my guide on what to do, I felt isolated and afraid. But it was the late 70s, and change was about to unfold—much more change than I could have possibly imagined for me or for the growing LGBT movement.

    More than two decades later in San Francisco, I met Phyllis Lyon during a reception hosted by Elizabeth Colton, founder of the International Museum of Women. Elizabeth was welcoming supporters there in the Victorian parlor of her home, and a friend pointed out where Phyllis and Del were seated. I introduced myself as president, at that time, of the board of a non-profit called Bay Area Career Women (BACW).

    A few months after that, the BACW Board honored Phyllis and Del with the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In December that year, they sat with me at BACW’s annual New Year’s Eve Dinner & Dance. They did so on many subsequent occasions. On one of those holiday evenings, they surprised me with the gift of an autographed copy of the 25th Anniversary Edition of Lesbian Woman. They met my daughter that evening too and, in so doing, touched another generation with their story that’s even now being passed to yet another. The story of Phyllis and Del, one can predict, is now unstoppable and will go on.

    I was given the task a few years later to select the “naming” honorees for a suite at San Francisco’s new LGBT Community Center. The first words out of my mouth were “Phyllis and Del.” The same thing happened a decade later, when Rainbow Honor Walk founder David Perry asked me whom I would nominate to be honored on the sidewalks in the Castro business district.

    Now, on the occasion of Phyllis’ 90th birthday, I am reminded that without Phyllis and Del having paved the way through their hard work and unfaltering activism, I might still be stuck in the Mississippi Delta, somewhere north of Greenwood and just a bit south of Oxford. I am very grateful to be writing during this week of Phyllis’ 90th birthday at my desk in the back of a beautiful old Castro Victorian.

    We honor and cherish you, Phyllis, and cannot begin to thank you for being who you are and for touching so many lives, including my own.

    Dr. Betty Sullivan is the founder of “Betty’s List” and is the co-publisher/editor of the “San Francisco Bay Times.”