Phyllis Lyon (1924-2020): Feminist Lesbian Icon, Human & Civil Rights Advocate, Friend, Mentor by Marcia Gallo
An Original OutHistory Feature First Published April 29, 2020
Marcia M. Gallo is the author of Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement.
In 2015, the GLBT Historical Society of San Francisco commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Daughters of Bilitis with Phyllis Lyon as honored guest. I sent the following greetings:
You may not know that one of my first memories of you is from more than thirty years ago, about 1984, when we met at a meeting at the ACLU of Northern California. A group of women were organizing the Bay Area Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (BAFACT). You were there with Del, of course, and even though I was a bit intimidated by your status as the famous foremothers of all things lesbian, you so impressed me with your knowledge and wit that I wanted to get to know you better.
Luckily for me, I had that opportunity. You often welcomed me into your circle of friends and compañeras over the next couple of decades, including the many times when I pestered you and Del to tell me more stories about DOB.
I’ll also never forget your talent for organization. During one of my visits to you in about 2002, you were able to produce names, addresses, and telephone numbers for dozens of former Daughters – some of whom you hadn’t seen for years but who were still recorded in your address book. I remember you saying to me — “don’t just talk to us. Go talk to them. We just got things started but it took the efforts of a lot of women to make DOB." You gave me that advice in your living room on Duncan Street, one of the legendary lesbian sites for activism -- and great parties.
Then, and now, Phyllis, I thank you for opening your home and your heart to me and to so many of us, and for being such a staunch and sexy role model. You showed us all how to put the “social” in social change!
I hope to see you again very soon.
With big love from me and Anni, Marcie Gallo
Phyllis Lyon, on her own and with her partner in love and life Del Martin, was an indefatigable activist. Journalist, organizer, advocate, her passion for “telling it like it is” never kept her from having a good time.
From starting the first national lesbian organization in the mid-1950s and crafting their mimeographed newsletter into a groundbreaking magazine, she went on to help organize the first lesbian and gay Democratic club, create the National Sex Forum at Glide Memorial Church, serve on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, represent lesbians at international feminist conferences, and insist that issues of ageism be addressed within LGBTQ and women’s communities.
Throughout her extraordinary life, her big heart, intelligence, and wit inspired a wealth of love and commitment from family, friends, and the “angels” who provided dedicated queer caregiving in the final decade of her life.
The story of Phyllis and Del, from their beginnings as a couple to their founding of DOB and other groups, has been told and retold for many years.
After their historic marriage in San Francisco’s City Hall on February 12, 2004, and again in June 16, 2008, they received extensive press coverage.
Del’s death on August 27, 2008 inspired an outpouring of media attention as well as community appreciation.
Twelve years later, Phyllis’ passing on April 9, 2020 also has been noted by local, regional, national and international news outlets. As a measure of her status, San Francisco’s City Hall, and the San Francisco International Airport, both were lit in rainbow colors in her honor. She would have loved the recognition from her beloved city.
Although she was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on November 10, 1924, Phyllis always considered herself a San Franciscan. Her family moved a good deal during her youth and Phyllis attended schools in three different parts of California, but by the time she was a teenager they had settled in the San Francisco Bay area.
Phyllis attended the University of California, Berkeley starting in 1943 and majored in journalism, becoming an editor of the prestigious Daily Californian student paper. She graduated in 1946 (“the wartime class of 1947,” is how she described it) and went to work, first at Burroughs Machine Company in San Francisco.
Then in Chico, California, she secured a general reporting position with the local paper. It supposedly meant working the “police beat” as well as covering city hall but by 1949, despite having had the opportunity to interview one of her idols, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, during one of Roosevelt’s tours of America, Phyllis was dissatisfied with reporting assignments that mostly wound up on “the women’s pages.”
She took a position in Seattle, Washington as associate editor of Pacific Builder and Engineer magazine, and it was there that she met Del Martin.
She has described meeting Del in 1950 – “she was the first woman I’d ever seen carrying a briefcase!” -- and starting a friendship with her which began, typically, with Phyllis organizing a welcome party. Their friendship deepened into a love affair.
After Phyllis left Seattle to return to San Francisco and accompany her sister on a cross-country trip – calling Del repeatedly (“collect!”) while they were travelling – they decided to make San Francisco their home, close to family including Phyllis’ sister and Del’s daughter Kendra.
On Valentine’s Day 1953, they moved into an apartment Phyllis had rented on Castro Street in what was then known as Eureka Valley. Soon, they purchased a car and a home at 651 Duncan Street, high up on a hill overlooking the city.
Although the next two years were rocky, and they weren’t sure that their relationship would last, they persevered. As Phyllis has often said, “it would have been too hard to figure out who would get the cat.” They knew that one problem was their lack of lesbian friends. “We were too shy to approach women at the bars,” she remembered. When a new friend invited them over to talk about creating a secret lesbian social club, they jumped at the chance.
Even though starting the group was Rose Bamberger’s idea, it was Noni Frey who suggested the name. She was inspired by Songs of Bilitis: erotic verses written by the 19th century French poet Pierre Louys and republished in paperback form in the 1950s. Louys had “translated” poems purportedly written by Bilitis, a mythical female contemporary and lover of the legendary Greek teacher and poet Sappho.
“Del and I went to the library to look up ‘Bilitis,’” Phyllis remembered, “and of course found nothing. Noni said it would be a great name – no one would know.” As Sappho was one of the few historical references to lesbianism available in the 1950s, and the reference to the imaginary Bilitis was even
further removed from mainstream awareness, the group’s name shielded it from the general public
while signaling that it was a gay group to those women who were “in the know.”
The result of their efforts made history. The Daughters of Bilitis, or DOB, became the first national lesbian organization in the U. S.
Started in 1955 by four female couples, DOB grew into a national network of lesbian activists and their allies, with membership always open to any woman who might wish to join.
Despite the founders’ initial goal of creating a safe place to socialize, in just a few months DOB became much more than that. The founders and earliest members had begun to create a structure, complete with rules and regulations, to govern an organization.
Although Phyllis remembered that “we would take almost anybody who came in the door,” and she and Del often told stories of the ways in which they coddled lesbians who expressed interest in DOB, joining the organization in the early days was tantamount to making a personal and political commitment not only to the group but to the new homophile movement.
They wanted intelligent, articulate, responsible women – over 21, except in a few exceptional cases – who would be serious activists but also know how to have fun. They also believed that creating a women’s organization would encourage more lesbians to come forward, as the stigma of belonging to a specifically lesbian group would be removed; they also thought that they could create allies among heterosexual women.
Working collaboratively yet strategically with the other, mostly male, homophile activists made sense to Phyllis and Del. But they couldn’t convince the others. A few months later, half of the original founders left. But too much organizational groundwork had been done to just abandon their efforts, and they rallied those who wanted to continue.
The remaining Daughters decided to pull together both a series of discussions and a way to publicize them, leading to the first ongoing monthly publication by and for lesbians. Using her skills as a journalist, Phyllis was the engine that drove the development of The Ladder from 1956 to 1960.
She worked relentlessly to make it informative and appealing to a variety of constituents, all on a shoestring budget, while transforming it from a monthly newsletter to a national magazine. Phyllis wrote articles, solicited original poetry and short stories, and established the practice of regular reporting on homophile gatherings. Although the quality of the typing, artwork and writing in the early issues is extremely uneven, and the stencils used to make copies did not always reproduce well, the sheer fact of The Ladder’s existence, including its monthly production that required hours of unpaid woman-labor, were reason enough for early subscribers to support it.
She also paved the way for shedding the mask of anonymity. Many of the women involved in the organization at that time protected their identities by using pseudonyms or pen names in the newsletter’s listing of officers and staff. However, in the January, 1957 issue, Phyllis dropped the protection of a pen name, both in the interest of assuring DOB members that their privacy would be respected by the organization and because she claimed that it was “too confusing” to maintain another identity.
In a story headlined “Ann Ferguson Is Dead,” she wrote: “I confess. I killed Ann Ferguson...with malice aforethought. We ran an article in the November issue of THE LADDER entitled ‘Your Name is Safe.’ Ann Ferguson wrote that article. Her words were true, her conclusions logical and documented – yet she was not practicing what she preached. Somehow it didn’t seem right...At the December public discussion meeting of the Daughters of Bilitis we got up – Ann Ferguson and I – and did away with Ann. Now there is only Phyllis Lyon....”
Under her four-year editorship, The Ladder made its biggest leaps: in size (from 12 or so pages to more than double that length in just a year’s time); in the range, quality, and breadth of its coverage: from local and national news to more in-depth articles about the growing homophile movement.
She covered everything she thought relevant -- thoughtful analysis of ONE, Inc.’s censorship battles as well as open letters to California Assembly members urging revision of the state’s vagrancy laws.
Each issue featured announcements and articles about discussions organized by DOB or co-sponsored with Mattachine or ONE – which were open to the public -- as well as analyses of, and challenges to, the prevailing medical experts’ opinions about homosexuality.
When DOB activists found a friendly voice – one that helped them dispel the notion of lesbians and gay men as criminal, sick, and immoral -- they made sure to promulgate it.
Phyllis also printed columns on fashion and personal style, and even accepted ads for perfume samples! Her journalistic skills and her own wide-ranging interests resulted in a lively, if casual, magazine.
The Ladder also charted the growth of the Daughters of Bilitis. From announcing DOB’s 1957 incorporation in California as “a full-fledged non-profit corporation” to the establishment of their first office space in downtown San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, it was used consciously to further DOB’s mission.
When the national organization disbanded in 1970, after expanding to include numerous small chapters throughout the Midwest, South, and Northeast, several of them continued to organize under the Daughters of Bilitis banner and hold events throughout the 1970s. One of them, the Boston DOB chapter, met until 1995.
But until 2006, there was no full-length historical work devoted to documenting DOB’s role in creating the LGBTQ and women’s liberation movements or describing the significant work of its founders. By the early 1990s, I had decided to write it.
As a 27-year-old newly-out newcomer to San Francisco and its lesbian subcultures in 1978, I whirled through a frenetic period of love and sexual discovery driven by disco music, dyke bars, and psychedelic concoctions.
Prodded by my girlfriend, I also answered an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle and went to work as a secretary for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
Within a few months on the job, I also volunteered for my first queer political act: I agreed to go door-to-door in northern San Mateo County to help “get out the vote” against Proposition 6, one of State Senator John Briggs’ ballot measures on California’s November ballot which aimed to ban lesbian and gay topics and teachers from California’s public schools. Phyllis Lyon was the co- chair of the local organizing campaign against it.
Authors of the 1974 book Lesbian/Woman, Phyllis and Del were icons by 1978: older, established, important people with positions of leadership in city commissions – Del as a leader in the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women and Phyllis with the Human Rights Commission. Del also wrote the groundbreaking book, Battered Wives, in 1976, one of the first works on domestic violence. They both were well known and intimately involved in and beyond San Francisco’s feminist and gay communities.
Early in November 1978, we all enjoyed a heady victory at the polls when California voters decisively rejected Proposition 6.
However, our jubilation at our electoral victories was cut short by the discovery a few weeks later of the mass suicide of People’s Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana – many of Jim Jones’ followers were San Franciscans.
Then, within days, came a huge blow: San Francisco Supervisor Dan White murdered Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk at City Hall.
As a community, we lurched from stunned shock to fury; local lesbian and gay leaders quickly surfaced to organize protests, among them Phyllis and Del. Their messages to the gay and lesbian community were of restraint and moderation during the chaos of reaction. Like many others, I was torn: my heart screamed in sorrow and sought revenge, but my head argued for coolness and control. Lyon and Martin appealed to my head.
But it was their organizing in support of Milk’s lesbian aide, Anne Kronenberg, that I remember today. They joined a contingent of women in an unsuccessful lobbying campaign with Acting Mayor Dianne Feinstein to name her to replace Milk on the Board of Supervisors, which would have made her the first openly lesbian Supervisor in San Francisco.
Supposedly uncomfortable with Kronenberg’s youth – she was 23 -- and relative inexperience, Feinstein named Rev. Harry Britt to the position instead.
Stories circulated among lesbians at the time that it was actually Kronenberg’s penchant for wearing black leather and riding her motorcycle to City Hall, girlfriends perched on the back, that were the real reasons for Feinstein’s reluctance to promote her. That made her even more of a hero for some of us. And I delighted in Phyllis and Del’s strong support of the young, dashing Kronenberg, who was a brash new-breed lesbian as unlike them in appearance and style as possible. What mattered to them was that she was a feminist.
A few years later, as I noted in my 2015 message to Phyllis, I had the opportunity to work with her and Del on the Bay Area Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force (BAFACT). Phyllis and Del were among the initial organizers of the group, whose purpose was to educate the public and elected officials about the dangers of legislation advocated by some feminists to criminalize printed sexual content. Especially during what would come to be known as the “sex wars,” their willingness to bring their clout and their political experience to the table impressed me greatly.
In 1990, Phyllis and Del received the ACLU of Northern California’s highest award. During the awards ceremony, they talked about their life-long membership in the ACLU and their commitment to the protection and expansion of constitutional rights for all people.
In preparation for the event, I began to learn more about them and the Daughters of Bilitis and realized that there was very little information readily available about the historic group they helped create in 1955.
Luckily for me and other researchers, however, in 1975 -- three years after The Ladder ceased publication -- its last editor, Barbara Grier, arranged for Arno Press, a subsidiary book publishing company of the New York Times, to publish a complete set of the magazine.
Sixteen years’ worth of writing about lesbian, feminist, homophile, and human rights issues were bound into eight hardback orange-covered volumes as part of the series Homosexuality: Lesbians and Gay Men in Society, History and Literature. The series editor was the pioneering gay historian Jonathan Ned Katz; former DOB leader Barbara Gittings served on the Editorial Board.
When I found these volumes during an early 1990s’ summer class in American history at San Francisco State University, an unknown lesbian world opened up for me. I still remember my joy and wonder at their contents. The hours I spent seated cross-legged on the floor in the stacks, reading volume after volume, crystalized in me a determination to learn as much as I could about these foremothers’ and my own lesbian history.
I then appealed to Phyllis and Del for their support in my undertaking writing a history of DOB. They agreed and Phyllis urged me to contact as many other DOB activists as possible. “You need to get as many perspectives as you can,” she insisted. They signed an introductory cover letter that accompanied my request for interviews. They also helped me gain unlimited access to their records at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco and made sure I knew the women in New York who were videotaping former DOB activists as part of a special project of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn.
Over the years when I would ask why, in the politically chilly mid-1950s, she and Del started a lesbian group at a time when calling attention to one’s homosexuality could mean loss of employment, family, and home, Phyllis would insist that they had no grand schemes in mind. “We just wanted to have fun,” she always responded.
I now understand her meaning: the one thing that all of the three dozen DOB leaders and members whom I interviewed agreed on was the centrality of socializing to the organization. Whether they believed in social services or social change as the essence of the group, whether they were educators or organizers, athletes or intellectuals, former Daughters describe DOB first and foremost as a meeting-place where lesbians could connect. They got women together by planning parties, picnics, discussion groups, conferences – even trips to petting zoos in the early days! – all of which were non-threatening ways to reach out to any interested woman who might want to join.
After decades of personal and political involvement, I value the commitment to social justice activism that I shared with Phyllis and Del. But I also recognize that it was a mutual love of laughter, camaraderie, good times, and a connection to a community of lesbians who were, in poet Elsa Gidlow’s words, “giving love and loyalty to themselves and one another” that motivated us to form our bond.
In the 2000s, annual lunches with both Phyllis and Del, and then with Phyllis after Del passed on, were priorities for me and my partner Anni during our annual trips to San Francisco. Without fail, despite having had dozens and dozens of conversations, stories, and fact-checks over the years, Phyllis would reveal a brand new and tantalizing piece of information, a new anecdote about their early years of organizing lesbians that was both relevant and really interesting.
When in response I would moan “why didn’t you tell me that when I was writing the book?!?” she invariably responded, “Oh, I don’t know, honey. I guess I just didn’t think about it at the time.”
Phyllis, I wish we had time now for just one more story, another memory, a lunch at your favorite Delancey Street Restaurant, an afternoon visit in your kitchen or in front of the picture windows in your living room where you first welcomed lesbians to the party seven decades ago. Thank you for welcoming me to your party. Your laughter, your passion, and your brilliance will never be forgotten.
A note on sources:
Recommended sources on Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin include their own book, Lesbian/Woman (Volcano, CA: Volcano Press, updated 1991).
The full-length film No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon written, directed and produced by Joan E. Biren (JEB), Moonforce Media, Silver Springs, MD and co-produced by Dee Mosbacher, Woman Vision, San Francisco, CA (2003).
See also Marcia M. Gallo, Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement (Carroll & Graf, 2006; Seal Press, 2007).
Important archival sources are found in relevant collections at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco and the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, New York, including the Daughters of Bilitis Video Project produced by Manuela Soares, Sara Yaeger, Kelly Anderson and Trista Sordillo, 1987-1989.
Added to OutHistory master chronology May 29, 2021.