June 17, 2008
UPDATED JULY 7, 2008
Photo by Jane Cleland
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom honored lifetime activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon by personally marrying them on Monday, and allowing no other licenses to be issued until Tuesday, preserving June 16, 2008 for this lifelong couple who have been together for 55 years.
Martin and Lyon were the first same-sex couple from San Francisco to be legally married (for six months) in 2004 when Newsom ordered that same sex couples be issued marriage licenses upon request. In August 2004, the California Supreme Court nullified thousands of these same-sex marriage licenses, but in May 2008 reversed itself.
California voters will find the issue on November’s ballot. [Good luck with that undetectably mutable software that counts the vote in secret.]
Capstoning a career of firsts, including founding the first national lesbian publication, The Ladder, in 1956, Martin and Lyon are best known for joining Rose Bamberger and six other lesbians in launching the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian rights organization that lasted from 1955-1970.
“In 1955, against the backdrop of fear created by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for homosexuals and Communists, Del and Phyllis joined with six other women in San Francisco to found the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), America’s first lesbian rights organization. In order to disguise the true purpose of the group, it was named after The Songs of Bilitis, an obscure book of lesbian love poems.” ~ Joan E. Biren (JEB)
Phyl & Del in 1954
Del Martin not only confronted the bigotry of homophobia, but also the bigotry of sexism within the homophile community when she published If That’s All There Is in the Advocate, in 1970. The more things change, the more they stay the same. In 1979, she published Battered Wives, blaming “American domestic violence on institutionalized misogyny,” according to Wikipedia.
Focusing on women’s equality, they educated feminists on lesbian rights when confronting Betty Friedan’s homophobia (referring to lesbians as “the lavender menace”) in the National Organization for Women. Later, they worked on decriminalizing marijuana, endorsed political candidates, and spent years developing healthcare sensitivity for lesbians, the poor and the aged.
“Lyon-Martin Health Services was founded in 1979 by a group of medical providers and health activists as a clinic for lesbians who lacked access to nonjudgmental, affordable health care. Named after Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, the clinic soon became a model for culturally sensitive community-based health care.” Wiki
At least one film has been produced on the couple, JEB’s No Secret Anymore: The times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.
Poster of JEB’s film, No Secret Anymore
They Brought Me Out
My first job was working as a page in the Rocky River Public Library (OH). Rocky River is a quiet, Republican, bedroom community west of Cleveland. I handled the first 300 sections of the Dewey Decimal System, which included a bright orange book on the top shelf: Lesbian/Woman, by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. At the time I was absolutely clueless about myself, so the first time I pulled the book down, I reacted with horror and quickly replaced it.
The next time I squirreled up the courage to look at it, I noticed their photo on the back cover. One looked mannish and the other feminine, which repelled me once again. I think on some deep level, I knew that tomboy character in me had more in common with Del than I was ready to admit. Finally, I “borrowed” the book and read it in 24 hours. All the lights went off in my head, and I finally knew myself. (I later secretly returned the book.)
What I liked best about Lesbian/Woman, especially given my internalized homophobia, was that it continually suggested that having feelings for another woman did not necessarily mean I was a lesbian. By the end of the book, I found myself defensively affirming that this was my new identity. I came downstairs and announced to my family, “I’m a lesbian!” Now it was their turn to be horrified. Over the years, we’ve healed those early difficult times.
Thus began my journey into the world of Sapphic love, although the physical experience escaped me for another year. Meanwhile, I made another geographic-cure-move to South Florida, just as Anita Bryant’s campaign erupted. At the time, Bryant was best known as the spokesperson for Florida orange juice. She used her national image to overturn a local ordinance in Miami that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. I went to a civil rights rally in Miami and bought a white T-shirt with orange lettering:
A day without equal rights
is like a day without sunshine
Buying a T-shirt was the best I could do, until I returned north and finally knew the love of a woman. Having read that book held me in steady confidence that no misogynistic culture could keep us from being who we really are – and what greater gift can a leader give to a young, isolated woman?
Congratulations, Del and Phyllis – on your legalized union and your exemplary lives.
 Marcia M. Gallo, Different Daughters: A history of the Daughters of Bilitis and the rise of the lesbian rights movement. Seal Press (Emeryville, CA), 2007.
July 2008 Postscript:
On July 5, 2008, I received this email:
My Dear Rady
I wanted to post a public comment to praise your column, however, couldn’t find post comment link. So, am writing to personally express my sincere thanks and appreciation for your column on Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.
Your column about Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon was in-depth and very moving . Del and Phyllis are truly our heroes. Their years of fighting for equality and the right to marry is an inspiration. It gives hope not only to us old activists, but to our gay youth as well.
My dear friends Robin Tyler and Diane Olson were plaintiffs in the original lawsuit on which the CA Supreme Court based its historic decision. Robin and Diane were the first couple to marry in California. I regret not being able to attend their wedding. However, thanks to the internet, I, we, were able to watch a video of their and view photos of Del and Phyllis’ weddings. Which brought tears of joy to many people, as it did for me.
I’m sure your piece on Del and Phyllis will open the hearts and minds of many to the struggle that LGBT people endure to be treated equally. Most importantly, it shows us as just people who love another with all our hearts and want to have our relationships legally recognized, as with our heterosexual counterparts.
I have been with my partner, soul mate and love of my life for 29 years. With much hope, we will still be able to travel to California in January to celebrate our 30th anniversary with a wedding ceremony of our own. Our marriage will not be recognized in the state of Florida, but, in our eyes, our dream of being married will finally come true.
Thanks again for your ever so wonderful and moving column.
In Pride and Equality for All