Sitting on twin black leather armchairs in their hillside home near San Francisco’s Noe Valley, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon seem more like seasoned veterans than giddy newlyweds. Though their home is awash in wedding photos, congratulatory cards and newspaper clippings, it has a much more lived-in feel than the average abode of a recently married couple. On a table next to the couch is a photo of the two on their wedding day, smiling away under an engraved silver frame reading “Finally made an honest woman out of her.”
The two women, 82 and 79, respectively, have lived together since 1953 – “51 years,” they inform Mother Jones in unison.
Now famous for being the first couple in San Francisco to enter into same-sex marital bliss, Martin and Lyon are trailblazers of more than just the recent line of couples circling San Francisco’s City Hall. The two have been activists since before many of today’s activists were born. But if there’s anything to be learned from these newlywed warriors, it’s that a sense of humor is the way to get through anything – whether its 50-plusyears of marriage or the barrage of discrimination brought on by being lesbians in the fifties. Though Lyon calls the recent California Supreme court ruling to stay San Francisco’s same sex marriages “downright nasty,” the couple’s banter shows there’s no dampening their parade.
“It’s almost as if they (the court) know they’re going to put a stop to this whole thing, and even if they don’t, you know – It’s really nasty! People had appointments. People were THERE.”
Del interjects, “And then they had traveled from afar to get here. And then to be –“
“And then they had to go up to Portland,” Phyllis interrupts, grinning.
After spending the majority of their lives together, it seems odd that the couple would be concerned with securing a marriage license – after all, they’ve probably been through just as much if not more than any married couple. So what does having the license mean to them?
“Well, we weren’t sure,” says Lyon, chuckling. Martin gives her an amused look before answering, “Well, it’s marriage, legally. And we had never, ever anticipated something like that.”
Lyon mentions that domestic partnership had the same effect on their relationship – nothing much about their lives together changed, and it didn’t seem like something they needed all that much. Sure, state and city benefits were nice, but most marriage benefits come from the Federal Government, 9which, Lyon says bluntly, only stands to do anything “If we get rid of Bush.”)
“I think that the idea of getting domestic partnered was to support other people, and that’s why we did the marriage thing, too.”
While both maintain that the marriage certificate isn’t changing their relationship, they would like to for it to be a legal document.
“Well, it would be nice if it would continue to be,” says Lyon of their certified marriage. “But boy it’s interesting how it’s swept across the country. They charged two Unitarian Universalist ministers in New Paltz [a small town in New York]. I’ve never even heard of New Paltz!”
With all of their political savvy, maybe it is interesting that they’ve Lyon and Martin hadn’t heard from New Paltz’s lesbian population – in the fifties and sixties, they were seen as the go-to people of the Lesbian world. Known mostly for their work in the Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights Movement, Lyon and Martin claim that GLBT activism sort of just “happened” to them.
“It’s hard to really explain how we became so well-known, because we didn’t really set out to do that,” says Lyon, the more vocal of the two. While Martin rocks lightly in her armchair, piping in to finish sentences or add an antectdote, Lyon describes the ups and downs (and outs) of being seminal figures in advancing the rights of GLBT people, particularly lesbians.
A Place to Dance
Martin and Lyon are two of eight founders of the nation’s first lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis. Though the group, named for a French author’s fictional collection of love poems between women, eventually published a well-known lesbian magazine and provided support to out and closeted lesbians throughout the fifties and sixties, its original goal was hardly as grand as all that. DOB’s big aim, Lyon recalls, was not to seek out other lesbians or draw attention to the plight of their suffering, though it was diverse from the beginning.
“The woman who wanted to start Daughters of Bilitis was a Philipina woman. And we had a Latina woman and a couple of lesbian mothers and four working class women and four middle class women… We had a very P.C. group at the beginning, all without thinking about it,” says Lyon.
“But [the founder’s] idea was that she wanted someplace we could dance… where we wouldn’t be subject to police raids and we also wouldn’t be looked at as part of the ambiance of the bar.”
Apparently, heterosexual infatuation with girl-on-girl action goes back further than Russian pop starletts Tatu and Willow of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“Some of the bars in North Beach that catered to lesbians would let us in without paying a cover charge, because we were part of what the tourists then saw when they came in and paid a cover charge.”
Lyon and Martin didn’t certainly weren’t looking to be the rock stars of gay rights back then, either.
“We moved here (to Noe Valley) in 1955. We had been trying for two years to meet more lesbians. We were too shy to go approach people in the bars, because they all seemed to know each other… we felt like tourists or something,” remembers Lyon.
“We had met a couple of gay guys that lived around the corner from us, and we started going to some things with them… We met this woman at one of the parties. She called us in September of 1955 and asked if we wanted to join this group of six people, six lesbians who wanted to start a secret social club. And we of course said, ‘Of course! Five new lesbians in our lives!’ So we got involved because we wanted to meet more lesbians. Simple as that.”
“Then, Things Happened”
Certainly being a lesbian before feminism, civil rights, or gay rights were recognized as any kind of movement was no easy task. But Lyon and Martin somehow summoned the inspiration and courage to out themselves and take on some of the more difficult misconceptions of gays and lesbians. When they speak of building support for others in the GLBT movement, however, they don’t paint a picture of a life filled with the fear of hate crimes and discrimination. Instead, they recall their activism with the sort of nonchalance that’s evident of natural leaders. It seems they were just living their lives, and organizing drag balls and community discussions were just part of the day-to-day.
The couples’ contribution to placing GLBT issues on Washington’s radar, Lyon says, had a lot to do with their work on other political issues.
“San Francisco is a small town, a small city. We were very active in democratic politics in the early days,” she says. “So we met people. We met Dianne Feinstein before she was even on the Board of Supervisors. And we met Nancy Pelosi when we were all stuffing envelopes for the Democratic Party…So we were able to do a lot of things we couldn’t have done if we hadn’t known those people. If we hadn’t been friends with them.”
Before Washington, the couple had to gain some ground on their own turf. While other founders of DOB drifted away, Martin and Lyon stuck with it, using the organization as a means to promote dialogue between San Francisco’s homosexual and heterosexual populations.
“We were more interested, Del and I, in doing something more for lesbians than just having parties for ourselves,” Lyon says of DOB. They also had a fair share of damage control to do. “People had strange ideas about us. Some people thought that you had to be a couple to join. Some people thought that we had orgies.”
Here she pauses wistfully and says with a teasing grin, “We never did do that,” which elicits a chuckle from Martin.
“But all types of strange ideas,” she continues. “Some thought we were communists…So we started a newsletter and held public discussions.”
Those discussions, which began in 1956, were lead by both heterosexual and homosexual individuals who offered advice and support to San Francisco’s rapidly growing gay community.
“Gays those days didn’t know what rights we had. They didn’t know when they got arrested for being in a gay bar whether they were doing anything wrong. They almost always pleaded guilty because they thought they were guilty. Because they were guilty of being homosexual.”
DOB’s public discussions included attorneys who educated GLBT people about their legal rights and a psychiatrist who argued against the long-held belief that homosexuality was a mental illness. But most importantly, Lyon asserts, was that “the public discussions were a chance for people to come if they wanted to hear what was being said. And they wouldn’t necessarily be considered gay. Or straight.”
Meanwhile, DOB continued as one of the only resources in the nation for Queer-identified women. “Lesbians especially were really unaware of their rights. So many were raised in religious families, so they knew they were going to burn in hell,” says Lyon. As they remember the public discussions and expansion of DOB, however, Martin and Lyon mention that just under ten years, the GLBT movement came to life around them. Because of the discussions, “People could see what we were doing and see if they wanted to get involved…And then things happened.”
In Lyon and Martin’s memories, there were about seven gay rights organizations in San Francisco by 1964, along with a handful of others nationwide. There was also a San Francisco-based gay newspaper. But a milestone both Lyon and Martin remember was a weekend spent with 15 ministers and 13 other gays and lesbians that evolved into the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, or CRH.
In the spring of 1964, the minister for the youth urban center at Glide church expressed concern that there were a lot of young gay men in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, where the church was also located. He called together a group of 15 ministers from various Protestant denominations to spend a weekend just north of San Francisco conversing with 15 GLBT people to try to foster understanding.
“It was really quite amazing,” says Lyon. “If they thought homosexuals were horrible, I sure thought ministers were horrible…I found out they were really nice people and human beings, and they found out that we [the gay attendees] were pretty decent people too.”
Besides being the first gay organization to use the word “homosexual” in its name, CRH was also the first to receive a federal 501(c) 3, or nonprofit status. The biggest victory, say Lyon and Martin, was that they finally had religious and spiritual support. After a controversial fundraiser lead seven CRH-affiliated ministers to question the SFPD’s treatment of its gay population, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about CRH. And the minister at Glide discovered he had spoken for more than just the people of San Francisco.
“He started to get tons of letters from people all over the world, who had never before heard a real mainline denomination minister say they were anything,” remembers Lyon, “except that they were going to hell in a handbasket. And here they were saying that they [gay people] were great nice people.”
Still building support for gays and lesbians in San Francisco, Lyon and Martin began to branch out nationally. DOB held its first national conference in 1960 and the women joined the National Organization for Women (NOW) as a couple in the late ‘60s. In 1973, Martin was the first open lesbian to run for a seat on the board of NOW – an organization which, at the time, was highly divided over the value of gay rights in the women’s movement.
“That was also the first year that NOW had a lesbian caucus,” says Lyon. “And there were women that came to that caucus who had never set foot in a lesbian thing before.”
In the meantime, several members of NOW were working hard to discourage Martin from running for the board.
“[Some closeted lesbians] came around and pleaded with Del not to run as an open lesbian…[they said] it was going to ruin NOW,” recalls Lyon.
“And of course I ran anyway,” says Martin. “And got elected,” remarks Lyon. “And she went to this meeting and there were three or four lesbians on the board. None of whom were out.”
“Yeah,” says Martin.
“None of whom would speak to her,” Lyon said.
“Yup,” says Martin.
The Hard Part
But if facing adversity within organizations they worked with was difficult, the women also witnessed quite a bit of homophobia, or at least ignorance, in their years as activists.
The fundraiser that prompted so much supportive mail to GLIDE and its minister was a travesty of municipal honesty. In 1964, CRH began planning to raise funds by holding a New Year’s Eve Drag Ball. According to Lyon, several ministers went down to speak with the police long before the event took place. At first, the cops were angered – some even questioned the ministers’ faith in God. But by New Year’s Eve, after several meetings with the police, the ministers had reached an arrangement with the police and felt confident the evening would go on without incident. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
“We got there early and saw that there were a lot of paddy wagons around and nothing much else,” Lyon remembers. The cops had searched the premises, checking thoroughly for fire hazards and reviewing the liquor license. Martin and Lyon stood taking tickets, bewildered by the party-goers somber expressions.
“People came through and gave us their tickets, and they’d say ‘hi’… but they were quiet. And it turned out…that they had stationed photographers on either side of the stairs, and anyone going in or out would be photographed. And they had movie cameras too.”
When Martin and Lyon went inside, the cops came and arrested the next few shifts of ticket takers, who refused to let the police in without a warrant (or an invitation). “And then they came back and there was nobody to say no,” Lyon says. “So they came in and arrested two guys for lewd conduct. But it turned out later that they’d had cards they had expected to use on at least 50 people, because they had a whole bunch to identify [people] as they were photographed.”
Martin and Lyon had dealt with the police before. At the first National DOB conference in 1960, the SFPD sent cops from the “homosexual detail” beat to the conference. Their “detail” enforcement somewhat bemused Martin.
“In those days, we all did dress up because you didn’t wear pants to work and you didn’t wear pants in downtown San Francisco. In fact, those were the days you used to wear hats and gloves,” Lyon recalls. “But just before lunch there were these guys who came up (to the conference) from the police ‘homosexual detail’. So Del, who was the President, was talking to them. And their big question was, ‘Do you advocate wearing the clothes of the opposite sex?’”
“And I said, ‘Look around. Does it look like it?’” Martin chimes in.
The misconceptions didn’t end there. Lyon, who worked at GLIDE for a number of years, got the opportunity to appear on a talk show in Los Angeles.
“I spent a great deal of time with [the] producer on the phone, explaining about lesbians, telling him about lesbians, mailing stuff to him about lesbians. And I get on the set, and they start going, and the first thing this guy asks me is, ‘How are you different physically from women?’”
Sticks and Stones
In her reflective tone, Martin remembers being called names and enduring criticism. But Lyon maintains that discrimination against them as a couple wasn’t really that bad. She focuses on the positive, recalling that the real estate agent who helped them by their home in 1955 offered to find homes for “your friends, you know, people like you.” Their former next door neighbors recently sent them a wedding card, and Martin’s boss at Mayflower moving and storage, where Martin was employed in the fifties and sixties, made sure to invite Lyon to every office party.
“You know, we’ve had friends here and there,” Lyon says. They both light up when asked to recall the personal highlights of the gay rights movement, and Martin uncharacteristically beats Lyon to the punch.
“You know, all the things we never dreamed would happen,” Martin says, up from her reclined position. “The Gay Games, the spread of gay rights organizations –
“And the power that’s back in DC, with NGLTF (the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force) and HRC (the Human Rights Campaign),” Lyon pipes in.
Perhaps more impressive than the awards received, political agendas advanced, or even books written, is that Lyon and Martin have remained faithfully devoted to each other throughout their trials and triumphs. Remembering that lesbians had a bit harder time recognizing each other in their day, Mother Jones wonders aloud:
“How did you guys end up in a relationship anyway?”
“Well I think we fell in love,” says Lyon, grinning over at Martin with a twinkle in her eye.