Local heroes: Best of the Bay 2008
San Francisco Bay Guardian
by Amanda Witherell
Del Martin, left, and Phyllis Lyon
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon have lived active lives — although “activist” would be the better word. One, the other, or both have been founding members of the Daughters of Bilitis, the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, and Old Lesbians Organizing for Change. Martin, 87, was the first lesbian elected to a position in the National Organization for Women, where she was also the first to assert that lesbian issues are feminist issues. Lyon, 83, edited the Ladder, the first magazine in the United States devoted to lesbian issues. And together, it seems, there’s little they haven’t done, from coauthoring books to becoming the first gay couple in the nation to legally marry on Feb. 12, 2004, almost 50 years to the day they first became a couple.
Deemed void later that year, their marriage was reconstituted this June when the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is, in fact, legal. Once again, Martin and Lyon were the first in line to tie the knot.
But gay marriage wasn’t the right they were fighting for when their relationship began back in 1954. “We had other, bigger issues. We didn’t have anything in the ’50s and ’60s,” Lyon recalls. “We were worried about getting a law passed to disallow people from getting fired or thrown out of their homes for being gay.”
Even something as simple as having a safe space to congregate was elusive. Before the mid-1950s, the only organizations that dealt with gay issues were run by and focused on men. So Martin and Lyon, along with a few other lesbian couples, founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955. “We would meet in homes, dance, and have drinks and so on, and not be subject to police raids, which were happening then in the gay and lesbian bars,” Lyon said. Those informal get-togethers eventually became the first lesbian organization with chapters nationwide.
They say their activism isn’t something that was sparked by their gender and sexuality, but came from being raised in politically conscious homes — Lyon in Tulsa, Okla., and Martin in San Francisco. When they met, working at the same company in Seattle, “both of us were already politically involved,” Lyon says.
“Really, ever since we were kids,” Martin adds. “You followed elections. You followed things like that. We wore buttons for Roosevelt. We couldn’t send money because we didn’t have any.”
“And then when we both moved in together, in San Francisco, the first thing we did was get involved with Adlai Stevenson,” Lyon says. They quickly got to know the major Democratic movers and shakers in the city, like the Burton family and later Nancy Pelosi, whom they would eventually turn to when there were gay issues that needed a push.
“We didn’t come out to everybody, but we came out to Nancy and the Burtons,” Lyon says.
These days age has tamped down the physically active part of their political activism, although they still donate money and were ardent Hillary Clinton supporters during this year’s Democratic primary race. They’re now backing Barack Obama over John McCain, though Martin expressed reservations. “I’m waiting to see how he handles the question about women and women’s rights. I’m not satisfied yet.”