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    Rainbow Honor Walk

    rainbowguyBy Dr. Bill Lipsky

    With Phyllis Lyon, her life partner of 56 years, Del Martin was one of the most formative and formidable individuals in the struggle to secure civil and human rights for lesbians. At a time when there was no strategy, as well as no precedents and no prototypes, they articulated the goals and implemented the course of action for the first political organization for lesbians in the United States. Two unique individuals, they were so united in life, love, and work that neither of their stories can be told separately.


    Del and Phyl met while both were working for a trade journal in Seattle. They moved together to San Francisco in 1953, renting an apartment on Castro Street, long before it emerged as a gay neighborhood. “We didn’t know any other gay people,” Del said subsequently, but eventually a couple of gay men who lived nearby introduced them to two other women. When one of them mentioned the idea of starting a social club for lesbians, they wanted to be involved.

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    Four lesbian couples from diverse backgrounds attended the first meeting of what would become the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955. Del became the first president, Phyl the first secretary. They saw it at first as an alternative to bars, where women could gather privately, without risk of their sexual orientationbecoming public knowledge, but that soon changed.

    “The thrust of the DOB became educating the lesbian so she could cope with herself and society,” Del explained later in an interview. The primary goal of “the organization was to encourage and support the Lesbian in her search for personal, interpersonal, social, economic, and vocational identity.” It told women they were not alone, provided emotional support, informed them of their rights.


    None of this had been attempted before, and no wonder. Consenting sexual acts between two adults of the same gender were illegal in every state, territory, and protectorate. The federal government had officially banned employing gays and lesbians. Homophobia was rampant. Meeting in private was one thing, but publicly announcing your sexual orientation was something else entirely. To create an organization for lesbians during a time when individuals could lose everything simply because of who they were–jobs, homes, friends, family–was a courageous, daring, and even perilous decision.

    Not only did the DOB go public, but it also went national in 1956 when it began The Ladder, the country’s first publication for lesbians. Phyl was the first editor, Del the first assistant editor. It started as a newsletter, printed on a mimeograph machine, assembled by hand, but it quickly became a magazine. Copies of the inaugural issue were mailed to some 175 women. Eventually that number grew to about 1,000, with astonishing, often life changing results. For many, it was their only contact with the lesbian community, enabling them to learn that they were not alone in the world.

    Both career women, Del and Phyl knew that lesbians, who usually had to work to support themselves, often faced job discrimination in a world where their gender could keep them from being hired or promoted, and their sexual orientation could get them fired. They concentrated upon the problems of lesbians–job training, employment security, family rights–both as women in an anti-woman society, and as homosexuals in an anti-gay world, even as they moved toward more identification with the emerging feminist movement.

    Their work as innovators, mentors and activists never stopped. In 1964, the two women became founding members of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in San Francisco, an organization created to educate the City’s religious communities about gay and lesbian issues. The next year, expanding its outreach to include elected officials, the group sponsored a “candidate’s night” where LGBT residents could discuss their issues with local politicians, the first time anyone running for office publicly recognized or sought “the gay vote.”

    More firsts followed. When Del and Phyl joined the National Organization of Women in 1968, founded two years earlier, they were the first lesbian couple to do so. In 1972, they published the landmarkLesbian/Woman to describe “the everyday life experience of the Lesbian: how she views herself as a person; how she deals with the problems she encounters in her various roles as woman, worker, friend, parent, child, citizen, wife, employer, welfare recipient, home owner and taxpayer; and how she views other people and the world around her.” The next year, Del became the first openly lesbian member of NOW’s national board. In 1976, she authored Battered Wives, which many consider the founding text of the “battered women’s movement.”

    Their courageous, pioneering work became the bedrock upon which later organizations built. Some of them, sadly, have not always valued the immense contributions of those whose groundbreaking achievements made them possible. Not only did Del and Phyl help lesbians across the country better understand themselves and their potential, but they also created a larger lesbian sensibility, one that showed two women could live together openly, honestly, and successfully as friends, colleagues, lovers, life partners, and spouses.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.