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    Pioneering Lesbian and Civil Rights Activist Phyllis Lyon Celebrates 95th Birthday

    “Phyllis Lyon is not afraid of the L-word, whether it be lesbian or liberal—or even lipstick … Her concerns are limitless, as are her talents.” Del Martin (1921–2008)

    Pioneering lesbian and civil rights activist Phyllis Lyon turned 95 on Sunday, November 10, and spent the day as she often does: inspiring friends and community leaders with her wisdom, wit, and vitality, all of which are still evident even as she approaches her centenary decade.

    For Lyon’s birthday, Kate Kendell—former Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights who is now with Take Back the Court, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the San Francisco Bay Times—took Lyon and Rocket Science Associates CEO Joyce Newstat out for a drive to a beach and a meal. As Kendell reports, “We drove, ate, laughed, talked. And felt grateful every second.” She added, thinking of both Lyon and Newstat, “In the presence of giants.”

    It would require volumes to fully cover the achievements of all three women. Focusing on birthday celebrant Lyon for this issue, we compiled what is just a partial timeline of her achievements. We also asked others to share words about the pioneering leader on the occasion of this milestone birthday month.

    Phyllis Lyon (center front) with Del Martin’s daughter Kendra Mon (left of Phyllis); playwright Patricia Cotter (upper left), director Jessica Holt (lower right) and the cast of The Daughters at San Francisco Playhouse on November 2

    All of November is indeed shaping up to be a well-deserved celebration of Lyon. On Saturday, November 2, for example, Lyon, family members, and friends went to the play The Daughters at the San Francisco Playhouse. The play, by Patricia Cotter and which ended its near month-long run on that Saturday, follows the 60-year journey of a community of women from the first secret meeting of the first lesbian social club in San Francisco to closing night of the last lesbian bar. We hope that the play will enjoy another run in the Bay Area soon.

    Phyllis Lyon with Cleve Jones at San Francisco City Hall (2014)

    Kendra Mon, the daughter of Lyon’s long-time partner Del Martin, told the San Francisco Bay Times: “The play was a smash hit as far as we were concerned: nostalgic, educational, funny, sad, and more.” She added that Lyon was honored and greatly enjoyed seeing friends, old and new.

    Mon also informed us that Lyon and Martin’s papers have been donated to the GLBT Historical Society and its Dr. John P. De Cecco Archives & Special Collections, which are among the largest and most extensive holdings in the world of materials pertaining to LGBTQ people. Mon indicated that she, Lyon, and others desire that the papers be accessible to the public. She also urges readers here to consider donating memorabilia that may document not only Lyon and Martin’s work, but also your own part in our community’s evolution and history.

    In the meantime, please join us in wishing Lyon a happy birthday and with gratitude for her ongoing efforts to improve the lives of others. As Martin years ago shared, Lyon is proudest of the following effort, inscribed on Lyon’s 1996 Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality Public Service Award: “in recognition and appreciation for her pioneering work in the lesbian movement which forced the world to pay attention to lesbian and gay activists.”


    Tributes to Phyllis Lyon on Her 95th Birthday

    Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi

    Phyllis Lyon is an icon of San Francisco, a trailblazer in our nation’s fight for civil rights, and my dear friend. Phyllis and her late wife, Del Martin, have always been an inspiration to me and to countless other leaders and advocates who have followed in their pioneering footsteps. Whether speaking out for the LGBTQ community, advancing progress for women and families, or ensuring that our most vulnerable communities have access to the care they need to thrive, Phyllis’s vision, values, and voice have been essential to building a brighter future for San Franciscans and all Americans. On behalf of the U.S. Congress, it is a joy to wish Phyllis a wonderful 95th birthday.

    Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi represents the 12th District of California and serves as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

    Governor Gavin Newsom

    Happy birthday to the one and only Phyllis Lyon, who wrote more than a few chapters in the story of our journey towards full equality for the LGBTQ community. Presiding over Phyllis and Del’s wedding during the Winter of Love remains a highlight of my time in public service. We honored not just their love for one another that day, but the big step forward we took, together, for LGBTQ rights and inclusion. When we honor Phyllis on her 95th birthday, we also honor the community she built and the countless people she continues to inspire. Thank you for helping us build a more inclusive and loving California.

    Gavin Newsom is the 40th governor of California. He presided over Phyllis and Del’s wedding while serving as the 42nd mayor of San Francisco (2004–2011).

    Jewelle Gomez and Diane Sabin

    Knowing the history of Daughters of Bilitis and the legend of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, we never expected to live around the corner from them much less have Phyllis attend our wedding at the Hormel Center of the San Francisco Public Library in 2008. There are many times when we say to someone, “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here today.” Usually we’re overstating the case. But that’s not true with Phyllis Lyon. We looked out at the small family group who’d come to our wedding on the Day of the Dead, just before the vote on Prop 8, and we knew that if Phyllis had not been a relentless, femme activist, our generation and the later generations would not have half the extraordinary (but should be ordinary) rights that we have today.

    Jewelle Gomez is a writer and activist. She is the author of the double Lambda Award-winning novel, “The Gilda Stories.” Diane Sabin is the Executive Director of the UCSF Lesbian Health & Research Center.

    Reverend Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani

    Happy 95th Birthday to Phyllis Lyon:

    We met on the edge where revolution and radical love came together, and we—you, Del, and so many others—created a new Frontier. We have been blessed to travel this journey of justice for all people together, and to experience your wisdom, courage, and creativity/innovation for all these years.

    You are a living beacon. You have created the brilliant light that shines for everyone into the future about the amazing, breathing, alive Spirit which arises when we are free to define who we really are, live our authentic lives, and love freely whom we choose.

    Happy 95th Birthday to our beloved revolutionary and woman warrior for unconditional love of everyone. We are grateful for your spirit, your love, and courage to create real CHANGE for all of us.
    Reverend Cecil Williams is the Founder and Minister of Liberation of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. Janice Mirikitani is Glide’s Founding President.

    Joyce Newstat and Susan Lowenberg 

    Happy 95th birthday, Phyllis!
    We are so blessed to be part of the community that you and Del built.
    With love and gratitude.

    Joyce Newstat is the Founder and CEO of Rocket Science Associates. Susan Lowenberg is the President of the Lowenberg Corporation.

    Senator Kamala Harris

    Throughout my career in public service, Phyllis has always encouraged me to continue working to secure justice for the vulnerable and the voiceless. She is a tireless advocate for women and girls and for the principle that everybody, no matter who they love, is worthy of dignity and equality. I’m proud to call her my friend and to wish her a very happy birthday.

    Presidential candidate Kamala Harris is the junior U.S. Senator from California.

    Donna Hitchens

    Dearest Phyllis, I am so very grateful for your years of friendship. Your courage, wisdom, passion, tenacity, humor, and generosity have inspired me as well as thousands and thousands of others. Your life has inspired us, and enabled us to pursue our dreams and achieve things we never thought were possible. Happy birthday to a unique and remarkable woman.

    Donna Hitchens was the nation’s first openly lesbian elected judge, serving on the San Francisco Superior Court bench. She founded both the Lesbian Rights Project and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

    Supervisor Rafael Mandelman

    Phyllis Lyon is a living legend, and I am honored to be her representative on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Long before I was born, years before Harvey Milk opened his camera shop on Castro Street, and decades before the Supreme Court recognized any rights for homosexuals at all, she and Del were agitating for cultural and political changes that would allow queer people to come out, live authentically, and even seek elected office. The world is so very much better for having Phyllis in it, and we all owe her an enormous debt. Happy 95th Birthday, Phyllis!

    Rafael Mandelman serves on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors representing District 8.

    Patricia Lyon

    There never was a better sister than Phyllis. She helped me through various disasters and I just love her with all my heart. What Phyllis and Del have done for the LGBT community is amazing. Happy birthday, Phyllis!

    Bay Area resident Patricia Lyon is the sister of Phyllis Lyon.

    Diane McCarney and Pauline Shulman

    We became neighbors with Phyllis and Del when we moved to Duncan Street twenty-five years ago. Our friendship with them has been an amazing adventure. Though they were a legend, to us they were ordinary people who did extraordinary things. Their activism changed all of our lives for the better.

    Diane McCarney and Pauline Shulman have been friends and neighbors of Phyllis Lyon for over two decades.

    Brett Andrews

    Rosa Parks said, “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” Thank you, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, for loving yourselves enough to courageously love each other, and always knowing what must be done. In doing so, you gave us permission to do the same—thank you. Happy 95th Birthday, Phyllis Lyon!

    Brett Andrews is the CEO of PRC.

    Roberta Achtenberg

    Phyllis and Del were the mothers of our movement. None of us would be who we are without them. Phyllis’ resolve to continue to live a life of generosity and meaning is truly inspiring. Happy Birthday, Phyllis. You are awesome.

    Roberta Achtenberg was the first openly LGBT public official in the U.S. whose appointment to a federal position (Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) was confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

    Betty Sullivan and Jennifer Viegas

    Phyllis and Del have been inspirations to us since the beginning. They welcomed us with open arms, spent time with each of us, mentored and encouraged us. They changed our world. We both are very grateful for their friendship and support, and in celebration of her 95th birthday, we wish Phyllis joyous days to come.

    Betty Sullivan and Jennifer Viegas are the Co-Publishers/Editors of the “San Francisco Bay Times.” Together they bring more than fifty years of working in mainstream and LGBT media.

     Published on November 14, 2019