Tag Archives: The Ladder

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.