Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon shared a deep, abiding love and a lifelong commitment to queer activism. They met in 1950 at a trade publication in Seattle, Washington, where they quickly became friends and lovers. They decided to move home to San Francisco to be closer to family, and also hoped to find gay community there. They soon learned that there were very few safe spaces for queer people; bar raids could and did result in severe consequences.
Something else was needed. In 1955, a friend invited them to a gathering of three other female couples that led to the creation of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian organization in the US. A year later, they launched The Ladder, DOB’s groundbreaking magazine, which continued monthly publication into the early 1970s. In the 1960s, Martin and Lyon also were the first lesbian couple to join the National Organization for Women; they worked closely with Rev. Cecil Williams and other progressive ministers at Glide Church in San Francisco to organize for gay rights among religious leaders; they supported queer Democratic clubs and progressive candidates throughout California and the US.
They consistently grounded their activism in their commitment to feminism and human rights. In 1979, Martin published Battered Wives, one of the first books to raise awareness of women in abusive relationships. Lyon devoted herself to creating educational materials on sexuality. They challenged the lack of services for marginalized peoples in San Francisco through the creation of the Lyon-Martin Health Services and called out ageism as members of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change.
When they were officially married in 2008 in San Francisco City Hall, they joyously celebrated with friends and family. Two months later, Martin passed away from complications following an arm bone fracture.Lyon lived until April, 2020 in their longtime home, a hilltop cottage surrounded by flowering gardens. At 95 years old, she had a cadre of young queer people—lesbian, bi, trans, nonbinary—who cared for her daily. She told me that she adored them and benefited greatly from their energy and love. For her carers, it was an opportunity to give back to their foremothers, whose lifelong commitment to social justice informs the last 70 years of queer activism.
Marcia M. Gallo, Author of Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement