Immortalized in history: The lives of UC Berkeley alumnae, lesbian activists Phyllis Lyon, Del Martin

Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin
Olga Berrios/Creative Commons

Related Posts

Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, UC Berkeley alumnae, were the first same-sex couple married in San Francisco — twice.

On Nov. 10, 1924, Lyon was born to William Lyon and Lorena Lyon in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Less than two decades later, Lyon and her family moved to Sacramento where she attended Sacramento High School. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 1946 with a degree in journalism, where she also served as an editor for The Daily Californian. She then briefly worked as a police reporter in Fresno before working as a reporter for the Chico Enterprise-Record in Chico.

Originally Dorothy Taliaferro, Martin was born in San Francisco on May 5, 1921. She graduated from George Washington High School as the first salutatorian before studying journalism at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. She married James Martin at age 19, but divorced him four years later. The couple had a daughter, Kendra Mon, before its separation. Martin retained her ex-husband’s name after the divorce.

Martin and Lyon met working for a construction trade journal in Seattle.

By 1953, Lyon and Martin had become romantic partners. They moved to San Francisco together. In 1955, they purchased a home together in Noe Valley, San Francisco.

Lyon, Martin and six other women co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, or DOB, in 1955, the first sociopolitical lesbian organization in the country. The DOB received its name from “The Songs of Bilitis,” a collection of lesbian love poems by French poet Pierre Louÿs.

The organization eventually opened different chapters across the country, and the group formally disbanded in 1972.

During its time, the DOB provided an opportunity for women and other lesbians to meet socially. In 1956, Lyon and Martin also began publishing DOB’s newsletter, “The Ladder.” 

“DOB fulfills a need NOW — the need of the Lesbian to live and function in society at this present time — not in some future time when society, psychiatry and religion discover that a Lesbian is a person,” a copy of “The Ladder” states. “To move into the world as a secure, productive citizen, the Lesbian must first accept herself. DOB is concerned first with helping the Lesbian adjust, and then with helping society adjust.”

Lyon and Martin were also heavily involved in politics and activism beyond their organization. They were among the first lesbians to join the National Organization for Women and were also co-founders of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club in 1971.

Together, Lyon and Martin wrote two books — “Lesbian/Woman” published in 1972 and “Lesbian Love and Liberation” published in 1973.

In a 2005 interview with the Bancroft Library Oral History Collection, Lyon said there was inherent risk in the life and activism of the LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s.

“We had never had trouble getting jobs, for the most part. It was keeping them, or the stress of not coming out — you know, hiding who you were,” Lyon said in the interview transcript. “You could get kicked out of your apartment if they found out you were queer. You could — all kinds of things.”

As they aged, Lyon and Martin’s activism adapted. They became involved with Old Lesbians Organizing for Change in 1989. In 1995, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein named Martin as a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging. Lyon was also named a delegate by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Together, Lyon and Martin tackled issues pertaining to older lesbians and older adults.

In 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that the city would grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Lyon and Martin were the first couple to be married at City Hall. Their marriage license and many others, however, were ruled void by the California Supreme Court a few months later.

Nonetheless, when the California Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage to be legal in 2008, Lyon and Martin were the first couple married again in San Francisco on June 16. The couple’s wedding ceremony was presided over by Newsom himself.

Martin died not much long after in August at 87 years old, from health problems exacerbated by a broken arm.

Lyon lived on without her wife for more than a decade before dying from natural causes in April at 95 years old.

Lyon and Martin’s perseverance and legacy have been immortalized. The GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco holds their papers. Documents related to the DOB and “The Ladder” can be accessed through the UC Berkeley Library, as can Lyon’s 2005 interview. The couple was also featured in a UC Berkeley Library exhibit, “We’re Here, We’re Queer, We’re in the Public Record!”

Contact Tarunika Kapoor at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @tkapoor_dc.