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Phyllis Lyon, Pioneering Lesbian Activist, Dies at 95

Phyllis Lyon

Trailblazing lesbian activist Phyllis Lyon, an advocate for LGBTQ rights since the 1950s, died today at age 95.

Lyon “died peacefully at her home in San Francisco … of natural causes,” according to The Bay Area Reporter.

“Few individuals contributed more to issues impacting LGBTQ, women’s, civil rights and the rights of elder Americans than Ms. Lyon and her partner,” Del Martin, the Reporter notes.

Lyon and Martin, who died in 2008, began their relationship in 1952 in Seattle, where they both worked on a magazine, and moved to San Francisco the following year. In 1955, they and three other lesbian couples founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian political and social organization in the nation.

In 1956, they began publishing The Ladder, a monthly magazine featuring political articles, poetry, and fiction for a lesbian audience. It continued publication until 1972.

Founding the organization and the magazine “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 Reporter points out.

The women influenced political and religious leaders to become more supportive of LGBTQ people. They were active in San Francisco’s Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, which helped persuade Dianne Feinstein, when she was mayor of the city, to sponsor legislation outlawing employment discrimination against gays and lesbians. They also fought for the decriminalization of homosexuality in California.

Martin and Lyon helped bring marriage equality to the state as well. They were among the couples who sued for equal marriage rights in the case that led the California Supreme Court to strike down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2008. They married as soon as that ruling went into effect, on July 16 of that year — the first same-sex couple married in San Francisco and, with Robin Tyler and Diane Olson of Los Angeles, one of the two first same-sex couples married in California. That November, voters passed Proposition 8 to temporarily revoke marriage equality in the state, but it was eventually struck down in court, and the marriages conducted pre-Prop. 8 remained valid. Martin died just two months later, on August 27, with Lyon at her side.

They had been married once before, in 2004, when Gavin Newsom, then mayor of San Francisco, declared marriage equality in the city, and they were the first couple to receive a license. Courts later made the city cease performing same-sex marriages and invalidated the unions.

Marriage rights actually hadn’t been a high priority for Lyon and Martin, Lyon said in 2004, according to the Reporter. “We hadn’t given it much thought,” she said. “We were much more interested in making sure that gays and lesbians could have jobs and not get fired from them just because they were gays and lesbians. And the same with housing and the same with almost everything.”

But their friend Kate Kendell, then executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, asked them to be the first same-sex couple married in the city, and they agreed. They were married February 12, 2004.

Lyon’s other achievements included cofounding the National Sex Forum, where she was a director for 19 years, and working as a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. She and Martin also collaborated on the 1972 book Lesbian/Woman, in which “many lesbians found a positive description of lesbian lives for the very first time,” the Reporter notes.

“We lost a giant today,” California State Sen. Scott Wiener said in a prepared statement. “Phyllis Lyon fought for LGBTQ equality when it was neither safe nor popular to do so. Phyllis and her wife, Del Martin, played a crucial role winning the rights and dignity our community now enjoys. We owe Phyllis immense gratitude for her work. Rest in power.”

Kendell issued a statement through NCLR, saying, “Phyllis Lyon is truly an iconic figure in the history of LGBTQ and women’s rights. Her life was marked by courage and the tenacious belief that the world must and could change. She and her love of over 50 years moved from the shadows to the center of civil life and society when they became the first couple to marry in California after Prop. 8 was struck down in 2008. Few individuals did more to advance women’s and LGBTQ rights than Phyllis Lyon. From the moment I started as legal director at NCLR, Phyllis and Del were fixtures in my life. Our monthly lunches gave me the chance to learn at their feet about my own history and the story of much or our movement. I got to be a part of not one but two weddings with them! First in 2004 and then in 2008. After Del’s death in August of 2008, I still had Phyllis in my life, even as dementia took a lot of her memory, she never lost her spirit, joy or sense of humor. I will miss her every day, but am comforted knowing she and Del are finally together again.”

Darrell Cummings, chief of staff at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, also released a statement: “There are many who can rightfully claim that they helped build the modern movement for LGBTQ rights. But among those many pioneers, there are few who can claim so central a role as Phyllis Lyon and her wife, Del. While the loss of Phyllis makes this a profoundly sad day, I hope we can focus on the groundbreaking impact she and Del had on our community from the founding of the Daughters of Bilitis to their hard-fought battles to transform the National Organization for Women into a lesbian-inclusive organization and their activism on behalf of LGBTQ seniors. We will miss Phyllis to be sure, but we will always feel her presence in the continuing march toward full equality and justice for the LGBTQ community.”

Lyon’s survivors include a sister, a daughter and son-in-law, two grandchildren, and a great-grandson. The family asked that memorial donations be made to San Francisco’s Lyon-Martin Health Services, a clinic serving the LGBTQ community and named in honor of the couple.

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