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Phyllis Lyon: Remembering a lesbian rights pioneer

Phyllis Lyon Del Martin

Phyllis Lyons, left, and Del Martin were the grand marshals of San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1989, the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. They are founders of the pioneering lesbian organization the Daughters of Bilitis. Photo by Tom Levy / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris

Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were the first same-sex couple to marry in California in 2004. They were secretly wed in San Francisco. They were quietly ushered into the city clerk’s office and exchanged vows before a tiny group of city staff members and friends.

Phyllis died Thursday at the age of 95 from natural causes. Del passed away in 2008.

Phyllis Lyon Del Martin marriage

Del Martin, left, and Phyllis Lyon get married at San Francisco City Hall in June 2008. Mayor Gavin Newsom, background, officiated the marriage. Photo: National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Phyllis and Del were a part of my professional and personal life starting in 1994 when I was legal director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. They welcomed me into their home and answered by relentless questions about their lives. We had frequent lunches in their house, and they were a never ending source of inspiration and joy.

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Phyllis lived her life with joy and wonder. Phyllis and Del were activists for more than five decades. Before the existence of cellphones, they published their number in the phone book in case any young or terrified LGBTQ person needed help or support. And they fielded many calls over the years.

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Phyllis was a journalist who met the love of her life, Del, while working at a Seattle magazine. They moved to San Francisco in 1953.

Shortly thereafter,  Phyllis and Del co-founded with other lesbian couples the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian group in the United States.

Phyllis was born Nov. 10, 1924, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She grew up in Sacramento and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was editor of the heralded Daily Californian newspaper.

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Phyllis was a police reporter in Fresno and a reporter at the Chico Enterprise-Record during the 1940s.

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In February 2004 when Mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, I drove Phyllis and Del from their home to San Francisco City Hall. They became the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license.

Phyllis and Del got married as a political act because they abhorred discrimination. When they married again in June 2008 after the California Supreme Court struck down the state’s laws excluding same-sex couples from marrying, the wedding ceremony moved them both. Phyllis was grateful that they had the chance to have a legally recognized union just a few weeks before Del’s death in August.

The last time I saw Phyllis was Valentine’s Day, which was Phyllis and Del’s anniversary.  If Del was alive, it would have been their 66th anniversary as a couple.

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During that last visit, we talked life and politics. When I left her home, Phyllis stood at the large picture window. Outside, I walked down the stairs to my car, and then turned back to look up at her. Phyllis stood there watching. I waved and blew her a kiss. Phyllis did the same. It was time to go. I got in my car and left.

I will miss this iconic and irreplaceable Lyon.

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About the author

Kate Kendell

Kate Kendell is is the former executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a national legal organization that fights for the civil and human rights of LGBTQ people and their families.

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