Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon: The Lesbian Daughters

Day 7 of the Pride 30 Project for Pride Month, 2018.

Lyon (left) and Martin as grand marshals of San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade (June 25th, 1989). Photo Credit: Tom Levy/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris via Making Gay History.

After receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 1946, Phyllis Lyon moved to Seattle, Washington, where she worked on the editorial staff of a construction trade journal. She met Del Martin, who received a degree in journalism from San Francisco State College, when she joined the staff of the publication shortly after. Martin, who was briefly married to a man, knew she was a lesbian, while Lyon, at the time, identified as straight.

Lyon was intrigued by Martin, who was the most handsome woman she had ever met. She was particularly impressed when, at a work party, she saw her drinking and smoking cigars with the men, who were teaching her how to knot a tie. Lyon was fascinated when Martin, over a round of martinis after work, told her she was a lesbian. She would later remark that Martin’s revelation put things into perspective regarding her own sexuality. “When I thought about it,” she said, “[it] explained a lot about the fact that I had been really attracted to women in high school… but I didn’t really have a clue as to what that was all about.”

Despite Lyon’s naivete, Martin summoned her courage and made her romantic interest known. The two became lovers in 1952 during the height of the McCarthy era and the “Lavender Scare.” A term coined by historian David K. Johnson, the “Lavender Scare” describes the purges of gays and lesbians from the federal government after an Executive Order issued by President Dwight Eisenhower established so-called “sexual perverts” could not receive federal security clearances. In 1957, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a publisher and owner of San Francisco’s City Lights Books, was arrested and faced with an obscenity trial due to the explicit homosexual content of beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. The 1950s were, therefore, a dangerous time for two women to be in love, both personally and professionally. Families routinely shunned gay children and anyone who was a “known homosexual” was virtually unemployable.

In 1953, the couple moved into an apartment in San Francisco’s Castro District, which was not the gay mecca it became in the 1970s, but a conservative, predominantly Catholic, working-class neighborhood. Martin and Lyon began exploring the lesbian bar scene in the North Beach district, which was fraught with anxiety and danger due to fear of police raids and harassment. They were lucky to have never been arrested. By 1955, their desire to socialize with other lesbians in a less fraught environment pushed them to take a bold step and co-founded a “secret social club for lesbians”: The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB).

The Daughters, as they were colloquially referred to, originally formed as a social club for gay women as an alternative to gay bars. In a social climate laden with harassment and witch hunts, the creation of an organization for lesbians, who began congregating in Martin and Lyon’s newly-purchased home in Noe Valley, a neighborhood just south of the Castro, was an act of bravery. The Daughters began with eight members. As membership increased, the group’s focus shifted from social interaction in the form of “gab and java” sessions to providing resources and support for lesbians faced by a hostile society.

Rose Bamber, a young Filipina lesbian who was introduced to Martin and Lyon through a gay male couple they knew, came up with the group’s name. Bamber proposed the club be called “Daughters of Bilitis” in reference to French poet Pierre Louys’ “Songs of Bilitis.” Louys claimed the poem was written by a contemporary of Sappho named Bilitis, a woman who was a lover of men and women equally. Of course, Louys himself was the author of the poem, and Bilitis was a work of his imagination, not an actual woman. The name was certainly obscure, but was intended to shield the group from homophobic scrutiny, while making a veiled nod to lesbian sexuality. Lyon would later remark the name was so arcane that years later she and Martin were “still explaining what it means.” Martin was elected as the group’s first president and Lyon as its secretary. The DOB joined the Mattachine Society, found in Los Angeles in 1950 by Harry Hay, as one of the first gay rights organizations in the country.

As journalists by trade, Martin and Lyon also had the idea to create a publication to serve as an extension of the DOB. Their newsletter, The Ladder, which by 1963 would grow into a national magazine for gay women, was initially conceived of as a recruitment tool for the organization. The magazine was entitled The Ladder because the DOB, in essence, sought to provide information to help lesbians climb the social “ladder” so they could be well-adjusted members of society. To this end, they advertised themselves as “A Women’s Organization for the Purpose of Promoting the Integration of the Homosexual into Society.”

Over the course of its sixteen-year run, the magazine became a respected site of information and commentary on homosexuality and the emerging Gay Rights and Women’s movements. Lyon served as the magazine’s first editor from 1956 to 1960. Martin then took over as editor in 1960. During their respective tenures, Lyon and Martin used the publication to both advertise the work of the DOB and to expand the magazine’s political coverage of the Gay Rights Movement. By 1963, Martin was ready to relinquish the reins and turn over her responsibilities to someone new. She chose as her successor Barbara Gittings, another prominent female homophile who, in 1958, started a successful East Coast chapter of the DOB in New York City.

Some lesbians, such as Barbara Gittings and her partner Kay Tobin, took issue with the DOB’s mission. First, the DOB shied away from the word “lesbian,” instead referring to gay women as “variants.” Second, some believed that gay people themselves, not academics and medical professionals, were the primary experts on issues of homosexuality. It was not uncommon, for example, for so-called “experts” to be invited to Mattachine and DOB meetings only to lecture members about how “sick” and “depraved” they were. Finally, some thought that society should change in order to embrace gay people as equals, not that gays and lesbians should “adjust” to a hostile world.

As both the Gay Rights and Women’s Movements increased in tempo during the early 1970s, younger gay women began articulating a radical lesbian feminist position that did not align with the more moderate stance of the DOB. The organization disbanded in 1970 as younger women assumed positions of leadership within the Women’s Movement. Martin and Lyon were often accused of being “assimilationists” by some of their contemporaries for not going farther faster. The pair, however, thought they were moving the needle forward on gay and women’s rights at an appropriate pace.

As gay women, Martin and Lyon critiqued sexism in the homophile movement, dominated by gay men, and the second wave Women’s Movement, dominated by heterosexual women. They were the first lesbian couple to become members of the National Organization for Women (NOW), founded in 1966. Betty Friedan, author of the landmark second wave feminist text The Feminine Mystique and NOW’s first president, infamously referred to the presence of lesbians within the organization as “the Lavender Menace.” Friedan was concerned that lesbianism would undermine the Women’s Movement — as many assumed feminists were all radical man-hating lesbians — and orchestrated the removal of prominent lesbians such as Ivy Bottini and Rita Mae Brown from NOW.

Martin and Lyon stoked Friedan’s ire when they applied for a NOW couple’s membership. Friedan intended women to use the couple’s membership option to entice their husbands to become members of the organization and to learn about women’s liberation. It was not until 1971, after intense pressure on the part of lesbian feminists, that NOW, at their national conference in Los Angeles, adopted a resolution recognizing lesbian rights as an important feminist concern. Martin, subsequently, became the first lesbian board member of NOW.

In 1972, the pair co-authored and published the influential book Lesbian/Woman, which became a foundational text of lesbian feminism. An early example of what we would today refer to as intersectionality, Martin and Lyon wrote the book to suggest that struggles for women’s rights must be inclusive of lesbians, and struggles for gay rights must be inclusive of women. They also used personal experience, drawn from their then two decades-long relationship, to dispel cultural, medical, and scientific myths about lesbians. Resisting notions of lesbians as amoral and “sexually depraved,” they define a lesbian as “a woman whose primary erotic, psychological, emotional, and social interest is in a member of her own sex, even though that interest might not be overtly expressed.” Their definition moved lesbianism away from sexual behavior towards a cultural and political identity. Martin and Lyon, like other lesbian feminists such as Rita Mae Brown and Charlotte Bunch, thought lesbian relationships had politically subversive potential in their ability to upend traditional gender roles that formed the foundations of patriarchy and heterosexuality.

Martin also called out gay male activists for their sexism in print, most notably in the December/January 1970/1971 issue of The Ladder in a piece entitled “Is That’s All There Is,” also known as “Del’s Manifesto,” and in an article for the Advocate, one of the first national gay newspapers, titled “Goodbye, My Alienated Brothers.” “After fifteen years of working for the homophile movement,” Martin wrote in her manifesto, excoriating her so-called gay brothers for their exclusion of women, “I am facing a very real identity crisis… [I have] been forced to the realization that I have no brothers in the homophile movement.” Continuing her pointed critique, Martin went on to say “goodbye” to various parts of the Gay Liberation Movement that were not relevant to the experiences and concerns of women.

Martin and Lyon were deeply involved in local San Francisco politics. In 1964, they helped found the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, which brought together gay activists and religious leaders to address police harassment and change city laws. In 1972, with fellow activists Beth Elliott and Jim Foster, they helped establish the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club, the first organization for gay Democrats in the United States. Martin also took up the issue of domestic violence, penning one of the first books on the topic, entitled Battered Wives, in 1976. In an analysis that remains relevant in the #MeToo era, Martin located the root of gender-based violence not within individual men, but in gender inequality and a pervasive culture of misogyny. A San Francisco women’s clinic, focused on nonjudgmental, affordable services for lesbians, was named Lyon-Martin Health Services in 1979 in honor of the pioneering pair. Today, the organization provides healthcare to women of all sexual orientations and to the transgender community.

In their later years, Martin and Lyon tackled issues facing older gay women, founding yet another organization, Old Lesbians Organizing For Change, in 1989. In 1995, they were both named as delegates to the White House Conference on Aging (Martin by Senator Dianne Feinstein; Lyon by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi) where they worked for the rights of senior citizens.

After over fifty years as a couple, Martin and Lyon were married when, on February 12th of 2004, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom brashly instructed the city clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples. Newsom thought Martin and Lyon should be the first in line. The marriage, however, was nullified on August 12th of 2004 when the California Supreme Court ruled that Mayor Newsom did not have the authority to bypass state law. Martin and Lyon were initially devastated.

“Del is 83 years old and I am 79,” said Lyon, following the court’s ruling. “After being together for more than 50 years, it is a terrible blow to have the rights and protections of marriage taken away from us. At our age, we do not have the luxury of time.”

The pair would live to see the decision reversed when, on June 16th of 2008, the California Supreme Court, in In re Marriage Cases, ruled that denying same-gender couples the right to marry violated the Equal Protection Clause of the California State Constitution. Martin and Lyon were again the first couple to be wed only minutes after the court’s ruling took effect. “This is an extraordinary moment in history and extraordinary moment in time,” Mayor Newsom, who officiated the ceremony held at San Francisco’s City Hall, said to those assembled. “They are extraordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives and spent half a century fighting for justice and equality.”

Though some perceived Martin and Lyon as having a classic “butch/femme” relationship, they did not see their partnership as defined by conventional gender roles. “It didn’t work for us no matter how we tried,” explained Lyon. “I remember thinking, well, now, let’s see, I’ve got to get Del’s breakfast every morning, because that’s what mother did for dad. So I did that for a week. Forget it. None of these things really worked for us and I suspect that was true for most couples.” As “butch” and “femme” as they got was Martin once leaving her shoes in the middle of the room and Lyon, in frustration, throwing them out the window.

Just two months after they, yet again, made history, Martin died on August 27th of 2008 after a long period of declining health exacerbated by a broken arm. Lyon was, of course, by her side. “I am devastated,” she said, “but I take some solace in knowing we were able to enjoy the ultimate rite of love and commitment before [Del] passed.” Mayor Newsom, upon hearing the news, ordered the flags at City Hall and the rainbow flag in the Castro district be flown at half-staff. The pantsuits the couple wore to their first and second weddings — lavender for Del; aqua for Phyllis — were acquired by the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco. Never far apart in life, their suits are displayed together as a testament to their near 60-year partnership.

When Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon began a “secret social club for lesbians” in conservative 1950s America, they did not imagine they were planting the seeds of a national lesbian organization or a lesbian feminist movement. Nor did they dare dream their love, partnership, and struggles would be acknowledged in a legal union.

What Martin wrote to gay women in the first issue of The Ladder in 1956 remained true all the years she and Lyon were together as partners, pioneering activists for gay and women’s rights, and, finally, as spouses:

“Nothing was ever accomplished by hiding in a dark corner. Why not discard the hermitage for the heritage that awaits any red-blooded American woman who dares to claim it?”