Remembering Lesbian Rights Pioneer Phyllis Lyon

Del Martin (left) and Phyllis Lyon celebrate after becoming the first same-sex couple to get married in California on June 16, 2008.
Reuters/ Marcio Jose Sanchez

Phyllis Lyon, who joined forces with her late wife, Del Martin, to become a pioneering lesbian activist years before the Stonewall uprising, died on April 9 at the age of 95.

Lyon and Martin, who passed away in 2008, were most recently known for becoming the first couple to legally marry after the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage rights in 2008. It was their second official attempt at marriage after their historic union in 2004 was later nullified by the California Supreme Court.

However, that was only a small part of the groundbreaking path that the duo paved over the course of more than a half century. The pair was most responsible for playing a pivotal role in advancing queer rights at a time when anti-LGBTQ laws and social stigma largely kept sexual minorities out of the public spotlight. 

As it turned out, Lyon’s formidable years were fortified by her upbringing and her education. Born in 1924 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Lyon defied gender norms of her era from an early age by earning a degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1946, before launching a career as a reporter on the west coast.

The degree proved to be useful for Lyon throughout her activist years: After she and Martin in 1955 became two of the co-founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian political organization, Lyon went on to edit the organization’s newsletter and helped it blossom into a mainstay among lesbians for roughly two decades.

Lyon and Martin would generate change almost everywhere they went during their era of queer rights advocacy and feminism, including hostile religious environments, where they were instrumental in founding the Council on Religion and the Homosexual and encouraged faith leaders to welcome queer individuals into their houses of worship. 

Beginning in the 1960s, Lyon and Martin became involved in the National Organization for Women and helped lead an effort to shift its focus to include queer causes. Among numerous other initiatives, the pair joined San Francisco’s first LGBTQ political organization, the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, which helped persuade then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein to back a bill banning employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Feinstein, now a US Senator from California, reacted to Lyon’s death by recalling her fearless advocacy and the legacy she left behind in San Francisco — including her work in pushing for the non-discrimination measure.

 “I’m so sad at the passing of Phyllis Lyon, a trailblazer, a fearless activist, and a good friend,” Feinstein said in a written statement. “Phyllis was a real power, not only for San Francisco but for the country, and I’ll truly miss her energy, determination, and kindness.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom, who officiated Lyon and Martin’s wedding during his time as mayor San Francisco, said following Lyon’s death that she and her wife “were the manifestation of love and devotion.”

“Yet for over 50 years they were denied the right to say two extraordinary words: I do,” Newsom wrote in a tweet. “Phyllis—it was the honor of a lifetime to marry you & Del. Your courage changed the course of history. Rest in Peace my dear friend.”

Lyon is survived by her sister, Patricia Lyon; a daughter, Kendra Mon; and two grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

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