Tag Archives: lesbian history

Rest in Power, Phyllis Lyon: With Her Wife, Del Martin, Great Warriors for Lesbians


Phyllis Lyon sitting back in an office chair, arms outstretched

Laurie and Debbie say:

Phyllis Lyon died in San Francisco earlier this month, at the age of 95. Her wife, Del Martin died in 2008. Lyon and Martin (or Phyllis and Del, as everyone in the San Francisco women’s community has always referred to them) were together for 55 years, and were trailblazers, activists, and heroes for all that time.

According to Zoë Sonnenberg, writing at FoundSF in 2015, Phyllis and Del met in Seattle in the early 1950s, and moved to San Francisco together in 1953. Homosexuality was illegal; gay bars (which often had a women’s night) were not hard to find, but were subject to raids  arrests, and rape. Living even semi-openly with a same-sex partner was legally and physically dangerous. Looking for community they could relax with and trust, in 1955, Del and Phyllis were invited to a private gathering which morphed into the Daughters of Bilitis: perhaps the first Lesbian social club in the country. Over the next five years, the Daughters grew from a tiny San Francisco social organization to a group with chapters in several cities, national conferences, and strategies to evade and frustrate the police.

Before the organization began to grow, the social aspects of the Daughters of Bilitis weren’t sufficient for Phyllis and Del; a year later, they founded The Ladder, a Lesbian newsletter which was published from 1956 to 1972, and formed the basis for a great deal of ideas and strategy for the safety, visibility, and rights of Lesbians. Sonnenberg says “The first issue had the express intent of attracting new members,” which characterizes the bravery of the effort: you can’t recruit among Lesbians without being visible, and when being visible is illegal, you can’t do it without risking yourself.

Phyllis and Del in the early years together

Between the 1950s and the 1970s, both legal and social restrictions on homosexual relationships and behavior began to relax slightly. Unlike many activists in all areas, Phyllis and Del were able to move with the times. By 1971, they were among the founders of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the oldest LGBT-centered democratic club in the United States, a much safer and more visible organization than the Daughters of Bilitis.

You can find the imprint of Del and Phyllis in the history of the National Organization for Women, and in the formation of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. The first radical health clinic for women in San Francisco was named for them, and is still operating today, as is the Alice B Toklas club. You can also find their legacy all over San Francisco, and all over the LGBT world. Debbie once had the pleasure of standing in line behind them for a long time, waiting for autographs from Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner. They could have gone to the head of the line in a flash, but that’s not who they were.

They made national news in 2004, when they were the first couple to be married under Gavin Newsom’s short-lived legalization of gay marriage in San Francisco, and in 2008 they were again the first couple to be married after gay marriage was legalized nationwide. Del died only a few short months after the second wedding.

A 55-year-marriage is remarkable, and a 55+ year life as an activist is remarkable: doing both together, often in the public eye, and remaining in love is a rare story indeed. They took profound risks, they made history, and they changed the world.



Women Whose Statues Should be in the Town Squares


Laurie and Debbie say:

For those of us who are in agreement that the world needs fewer (or no) statues of Confederate “heroes” and slave owners, what do we want in their place?

For starters, how about some statues of women who are being honored for what they did, not how they looked?

We got the idea from Transgriot, who lives in Houston. She suggests three Houston politicians. They are all excellent choices; the one we’ll focus on here is Barbara Jordan.

Here’s Transgriot’s reasoning:

She became in 1967 the first (and sadly so far) only Black woman elected to the Texas Senate and the first Black Texan to be elected to the Texas Legislature since Reconstruction.  

She then made history again by getting elected to the US House of Representatives in the newly created 18th Congressional District in 1972.   She … made two historic keynote speeches to Democratic national conventions in 1976 and 1992 and was the ethics advisor for Gov Ann Richards.

She made history even when she died in 1996.   She became the first Black Texan to be interred in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

A staunch warrior for civil rights throughout her lifetime, Jordan spoke in favor of impeaching Richard Nixon.


Far too few people remember Barbara Jordan at all, or could tell you anything specific she did or said. Even fewer people remember–or ever knew–that she was a Lesbian, though she chose to keep that fairly quiet. Here’s Corinne Werder, writing about Jordan as a queer woman history forgot:

Though Jordan wasn’t out as a lesbian, she made no secret of her life companion Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist. The couple met in the most lesbian of ways: on a camping trip in the late 60s. According to the Jordan Rustin Coalition, “Jordan never publicly acknowledged her sexual orientation, but in her obituary, the Houston Chronicle mentioned her longtime relationship with Earl. After Jordan’s initial unsuccessful statewide races, advisers warned her to become more discreet and not bring any female companions on the campaign trail.” 

The “Jordan Rustin Coalition” also honors Bayard Rustin, who deserves a whole post (and a lot of statues) of his own.

(The University of Texas does have a statue of Barbara Jordan, which they’ve displayed since 2009. However, universities are very different from public squares, and the woman certainly deserves more than one statue.)

In this week’s reading, we came across another woman whose statue we’d like to see. We don’t know if Portland has any “racist hero” statues it needs to take down, but in the unlikely event that it doesn’t, the city can still put up a memorial to Marie Equi.

Stephanie Buck tells Equi’s story at Timeline.

She carried a banner. “Prepare to die, workingmen,” it warned. “J.P. Morgan & Co. want preparedness for profit. Thou shalt not kill.” It was June of 1916, and the country was headed for war. The town of Portland, Oregon, was holding a preparedness parade, a show of patriotic unity and an effort to drum up support. Then Marie Equi, a lesbian anarchist and abortionist, showed up with her banner.

“The lawyers attacked me first, then the Knights of Columbus,” she recounted later that night at the police station. A group of men marching in the parade approached her car and tore the sign to pieces. One struck her with a staff and a scuffle ensued. Equi was bruised and her hand bloodied. Then another man offered her an American flag. “I was perfectly calm. I said, ‘Very well, brave American gentlemen, your flag is no protection to me,’” and she tore it up.

Equi got her medical degree around the turn of the last century. She was an open Lesbian, in a relationship with a brewing heiress whose family kept trying to disinherit her. Around 1915, the couple adopted a daughter (that must be an interesting story in itself!).

In 1913, she attended a Portland cannery strike where female laborers (and some of her patients) argued for better wages, with some making only five cents per hour. Especially during summer, conditions in the factory were dangerous: Despite the heat, floor bosses locked the doors to keep workers productive and union organizers outside.

One day, the strike turned violent and Equi clashed with counter-protesters. Then she watched as a police officer struck and forcibly dragged a pregnant woman to jail. It was the last straw. She declared herself an anarchist and a socialist, and publicly supported the radical labor union Industrial Workers of the World. Days after the strike, she climbed onto a chair in the middle of Portland’s city hall and threatened to “shed blood” if anyone stood in the way of the cause. Her weapon, she snarled, would be a poisoned hat pin to cause a “slow and lingering death.”

She was friends (and perhaps lovers) with Margaret Sanger, and also a close ally of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. And yet, her name is even further from being a household word than Jordan’s is. Between us, we know a lot of women’s history — and queer women’s history — and neither of us had heard of Equi until we found Buck’s article.

Lesbian photographer and activist Tee Corinne always spoke up for Lesbian history, and for remembering the sexual orientation of both women who had to keep their choices quiet to survive or thrive, and women who lived openly in dangerous times and places.

We’re rooting for a statue of Jordan in Houston and a statue of Equi in Portland. And we’re also imagining a whole sculpture garden of women who changed the world for the better–we know many more we can write about in future blogs.  Let’s put up the statues where lots of people can come and appreciate the amazing things these women have done and, for a change, remember them.