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    The Loss of a ‘Lyon’: Phyllis Lyon November 10, 1924 – April 9, 2020


    By Kate Kendell–

    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 Phyllis Lyon and her partner of 58 years Del Martin. Phyllis and Del were the first same-sex couple to marry in California on June 16, 2008. Weeks later, on August 27, 2008, Del Martin died in San Francisco, with Phyllis at her side. Del was 87. 

    The couple’s wedding in 2008 was not their first. In 2004, when then San Francisco Mayor Gavin
    Newsom boldly determined to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in California, Phyllis and Del 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 Phyllis. “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.” 

    Phyllis Lyon was born on November 10, 1924, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She spent her formative years in Sacramento, California and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1946 with a degree in journalism. As an undergraduate she served as Editor of the legendary Daily Californian 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. 

    Phyllis later worked as an administrative assistant to  Reverend Cecil Williams at Glide Memorial Church. She is credited by Rev. Williams with helping him shape a more inclusive vision for Glide. Phyllis and Del were a pivotal part of Glide’s inclusivity for LGBTQ people. 

    Phyllis 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 (IASAS) where she was an innovator in sex education. 

    Phyllis and Del met when Del joined the staff of the Seattle magazine where Phyllis 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, Phyllis and Del embarked on a lifelong career of activism. In 1955, along with three other lesbian couples, they co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). DOB 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 publication of Phyllis and Del’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. 

    Phyllis and Del were the first open lesbians to join the National Organization for Women (NOW) and helped form the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH) 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 and Del became active in San Francisco’s first gay political organization, the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, which influenced then-mayor Dianne Feinstein to sponsor a citywide bill to outlaw employment discrimination for gays and lesbians. The two backed Nancy Pelosi when she was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1987. In 1979, activists established Lyon-Martin Health Services named in honor of Phyllis and Del. 

    In 1989, the two 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 Phyllis and Del 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. 

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

    Survivors are her beloved sister Patricia Lyon, called Tricia by Phyllis; her devoted daughter, Kendra Mon; son-in-law Eugene Lane, dubbed by Phyllis an honorary lesbian; granddaughter Lorri Mon; grandson Kevin Mon; his wife Ellen; and Phyllis’ 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 family requests that gifts in honor of Phyllis be made to the Lyon-Martin Health Clinic: https://bit.ly/3b8C1bv 

    A celebration of life honoring Phyllis is being planned. The Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin Papers, 1924–2000, are archived at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society in San Francisco. 

    Kate Kendell, Esq., is the former Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and now works with Take Back the Court and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

     


    Timeline of Phyllis’ Life 

    Phyllis Ann Lyon was born November 10, 1924, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and raised primarily in Northern California. She graduated from Sacramento Senior High School in 1943 and went on to the University of California, Berkeley, where
    she received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism in 1946. She later (1976) earned a Doctor of Education in Human Sexuality from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality (IASHS).

    Lyon served as a police-beat reporter in Fresno and as a reporter at the Chico Enterprise-Record during the 1940s. In the 1950s she served on the editorial staff at two building trades magazines in Seattle. After returning to San Francisco
    in 1953, Lyon worked at Glide Memorial Church with Reverend Cecil Williams until 1987. She served as a professor at IASHS from 1976–1987. She also co-founded the National Sex Forum and served as associate director and then codirector
    for 19 years. 

    Lyon and Martin met in Seattle in 1950 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. They bought their lifelong home in Noe Valley
    in 1955. Martin and Lyon were part of a group of eight lesbians who founded the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) as a secret social society in 1955. The group was founded to counteract the loneliness and isolation they felt as lesbians. It became the first national lesbian rights organization in the United States. 

    DOB began publishing the groundbreaking monthly magazine The Ladder in 1956. Lyon was the magazine’s editor until she became DOB president in 1960. In 1964, the Council on Religion and the Homosexual launched with 15 national religious leaders and 15 lesbians and gay men, including Lyon and Martin. Their mission was to persuade churches to
    open their congregations to lesbians and gay men and to end police harassment of gays and lesbians and overturn the laws that criminalized homosexual behavior.

    Lesbian/Woman, Martin and Lyons’ landmark book that described lesbian lives in a positive way—virtually unknown at the time—was published in 1972, and updated and expanded in 1983 and 1991.

    The Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the first lesbian/gay political club in the United States, started in 1971, and Martin and Lyon were among the organizers.

    Lyon and Martin were among the first out lesbians to join the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1967, insisting on the couple’s membership rate. They helped lead efforts at the 1971 and 1973 NOW conventions to adopt resolutions
    that linked the oppression of lesbians with feminist issues.

    San Francisco Mayor George Moscone appointed Lyon to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission (HRC) in 1976, and she served as Chair in 1982–1983.

    Lyon and Martin were elected as California delegates to the National Women’s Conference, held in Houston in November 1977. There they fought passionately for the passage of a resolution on lesbian rights.

    Lyon-Martin Health Services was established in 1979 and later named in honor of the couple. 

    Among the many awards Martin and Lyon received was the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California’s highest honor, the Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award, which they received in 1990. 

    In 1994, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) Historical Society in San Francisco acquired the extensive papers of Lyon and Martin, including the complete records of the Daughters of Bilitis, and The Ladder.

    In 1995, then Congresswoman, now Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi appointed Lyon as a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging, where she and Martin strongly advocated for LGBTQ elders. 

    As part of their 50th anniversary celebration in 2003, Martin and Lyon attended the premiere of the award-winning documentary film, No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.

    On February 12, 2004, Martin and Lyon were the first of more than 4,000 same-sex couples to wed. The marriages were sanctioned by San Francisco, but later nullified by the California Supreme Court.

    In 2006, Phyllis and Del were featured in the book Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and
    the Birth of the Lesbian Rights Movement by Marcia M Gallo.

    On May 15, 2008, the state Supreme Court ruled the ban on same-sex marriage illegal. One month later, as soon as it was possible, Lyon married Martin, the love of her life and her partner of 55 years.

    Martin died on August 27, 2008.

    Lyon died on April 9, 2020.

    When asked what their most important contribution had been, Lyon and Martin answered by saying: “being able to help make changes in the way Lesbians and Gay men view themselves & how the larger society views Lesbians and Gay men.”

    Published on April 9, 2020