In 2008, after 55 years together, Del Martin, age 87, and Phyllis Lyon, age 84, were finally wed in San Francisco, but it was for the second time. Four years earlier, before same-sex marriage was legalized in the state of California, during a large ceremony honoring their long-standing contributions to LGBTQ activism, they were the first of 90 gay couples to be married illegally by the city’s then-mayor Gavin Newsom.
When Martin and Phyllis made their initial vows as San Francisco’s first same-sex couple, the ceremony was conducted so that their union could potentially be included in a lawsuit to champion marriage equality in the United States. The director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Kate Kendell, invited them with this promise: “This will hopefully be the last thing the movement will ever ask you to do, but do you wanna get married?”
As lesbian history was unfolding in the 1950s, it was Del and Phyllis who gathered in the home of their friend Rose Bamberger and her partner Rosemary Sliepen and founded the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian organization in the country. Martin and Lyon would soon become co-editors of the Ladder, DOB’s publication, and grow the readership even amid an era of pervasive homophobia. The pair was also the first lesbian couple to join the National Organization for Women, as feminist causes also spurred their organizing work.
Over the next five decades, Martin and Lyon never stopped organizing, and gradually, thanks in no small part to their efforts, LGBTQ visibility shifted from secrecy to “out and proud” activism.
Marcia M. Gallo, historian of DOB and lesbian history, recalls her first encounter with the couple. “When I first went in to do an interview I asked, ‘Did you know that when you started this you were going to change the world?’ and they were like, ‘Oh no, we just wanted to have fun,’” she remembers.
In 1950, Del Martin, born May 5, 1921, in San Francisco, met Phyllis Lyon, born November 10, 1924, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when they both worked as journalists for the same Seattle publication. The two became lovers and moved to San Francisco.
“They were this wonderful pair that were really both so much fun and so frustrating to interview because they would interrupt one another,” Gallo laughs. “A couple that’s been together for that long—you can imagine.”
In archived audio and video interviews, Martin and Lyon can be heard bantering back and forth—interrupting, interjecting, disputing and reacting to each other’s recollections. “I'd ask a question and Del would formulate the story, and then Phyllis, inevitably, would come in and either contradict or question, or add something that would make me go ‘What? Wait, wait,’” Gallo remembers.
The couple was easily characterized by their overwhelming care and love for each other, as well as their humor, which transcended their many years together. Martin and Lyon’s activism, though, was also an important feature of their relationship.
In the collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, a rolodex that once belonged to the couple is packed with contacts collected over their decades working together. The rotating file, filled with index cards scribbled with notes, home addresses and phone numbers, resides among a host of other items donated by Martin’s daughter, Kendra Mon.
Katherine Ott, a curator at the museum, explains that this relic of a pre-internet past is “chock-full of all of the era’s important queers.” The rolodex is only a glimpse into their long history of organizing around queer and women’s rights, which began with the formation of DOB.
Starting an organization by lesbians, for lesbians, in 1955 carried its share of risks. The McCarthy-era moral panic surrounding sexuality was ablaze in the form of Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450, which barred queer people from working for government agencies. The Lavender Scare, named for a derogatory term used by Senator Everett Dirksen, became a kind of witch-hunt as the federal government used abusive tactics to discover and root out gay people—some 10,000 civil servants would lose their jobs. Queer people were described as perverts and sexual deviants. A 1955 film entitled Boys Beware, shown in high schools, warned young boys of homosexual predators who would try and take advantage of their unsuspecting innocence.
For the most part, gay and lesbian culture existed in the bar scene, where queer people had the space to socialize and (limited) privacy. Still, in the 1950s, “public space was not safe,” Ott says.
Martin and Lyon identified the need for another space to socially connect with other lesbians. Gallo recalls that Martin and Lyon “just wanted a place where they could get together with their lovers and their girlfriends and dance, and have some drinks, and not have to worry about being harassed or worse.” There was also a need to cultivate a space for women outside of gay man–dominated organizations.
DOB was imagined out of those two needs. The name refers to The Songs of Bilitis, a collection of verse by the poet Pierre Louÿs, who imagined a character, Bilitis, living alongside Sappho on the Isle of Lesbos. Pronounced “Bill-EE-tis" (since “Bill-EYE-tis” sounded like a disease, according to Lyon), the name served as a kind of dogwhistle inviting lesbians to join DOB, while still maintaining their safety as much as possible. The organization was a part of the “homophile movement,” the post-World War II period when lesbians and gays sought to “emphasize their sense of community and deemphasize the sexual aspect of their identity.”
“The meetings were always people having drinks and sometimes hanging out for hours and hours. They mixed the socializing with the social action,” Gallo explains of the shift DOB experienced towards more political action. “They were both bold and trying to create safety.”
By holding their regular meetings and encouraging debate and social discussion, DOB offered an opportunity for community and collective organizing. Out of this activism emerged the Ladder, which soon became a signature platform for lesbians to, anonymously or openly, write about current events in their community, send in letters, explore studies on sexuality and publish queer fiction stories.
The first issue in 1956, edited by Lyon, describes the purpose of DOB to educate "the variant,” “the public,” participate in “research projects” and investigate “the penal code as it pertains to the homosexual.” The issue also contained a social calendar and a letter from the president of DOB, Del Martin.
After its formation in 1956, the Ladder garnered attention from lesbians across the country, as well as queer allies from places like the ACLU and the Kinsey Institute and people like Reverend Cecil Williams, a civil rights leader and early supporter of LGBTQ rights at San Francisco’s Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. Still, the circulation of the Ladder was limited to those who were able to access it, because, in Ott’s words, “you had to find out about it.”
Despite DOB’s best attempts to secure the names and information of those who subscribed, many still feared being outed. The readership expanded as readers shared their copies directly with friends and social acquaintances. “Even though it was a small network, it was a network nonetheless,” says Gallo.
Though the first covers of the Ladder included illustrations, by 1959, lesbian faces graced the front of each issue. The June 1966 cover depicts Ernestine Eckstein, vice president of the New York Chapter of DOB, “who’s really ahead of her time, and deserves a book of her own,” says Gallo. In the photograph, Eckstein is pictured with a subtle grin; she was the first Black woman to appear on the Ladder’s cover.
Inside the magazine’s pages is a nine-page interview with Eckstein, conducted by DOB members Kay Tobin and Barbara Gittings, where she discusses her coming of age as a young lesbian, the lack of Black people in the lesbian homophile movement, her extensive experience fighting for civil rights through the NAACP and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and how to bolster DOB’s political goals. She challenges more moderate, less visible approaches to queer activism. “Homosexuals are invisible, except for the stereotypes, and I feel homosexuals have to become visible and to assert themselves politically.” Through her activism, Eckstein challenged reductive notions of who was involved in DOB. On the last page of the June 1966 issue, there is a photo of her picketing at the White House, holding a sign that reads “Denial of Equality of Opportunity Is Immoral.”
The museum has collected various issues of the Ladder, including the one with Eckstein on the cover. Mapping out the history of queer activism is difficult, though, considering there are limited records available. Ott shares that “the power of the printed word” preserves these stories, and without publications and written artifacts like the Ladder, much of queer history would be lost. Martin and Lyon, as editors of the Ladder, played a pivotal role in its success and the cultivation of a platform for lesbians to engage passively, through reading, or actively, through writing and sharing, with the magazine. The work they did for DOB and the Ladder concluded as the organization faced internal turmoil and disagreement at the end of the 1960s.
As the queer rights movement shifted to militant direct action in the late 60s, DOB’s organizing fell out of style. “When everybody was in the streets for gay lib and lesbian liberation, [Del and Phyllis] were looked at as the grandmothers, those were the old fuddy duddies, who weren’t with the program any longer,” Gallo describes. DOB’s balance between “safety and boldness” served the movement in the 1950’s, but now the gay liberation movement challenged anti-gay discrimination with different methods.
Ott explains that the homophile movement is often reduced to a passive, accommodationist movement, which erases the change that it did create. “They also then became part of the gay liberation movement and did radical things pushing institutions to change,” Ott adds, “which I think is just as risky and brave and radical as being in the streets, which they did plenty of, as well.”
Martin and Lyon continued to engage in the fight even as the landscape of queer political activism changed.
In 1967, they became the first lesbian couple to take advantage of the National Organization for Women’s couples’ discount offered to heterosexual women who invited their husbands to join the group. Their shared passion for women’s rights activism drew them to the organization, and Martin eventually became the first out lesbian on NOW’s national board. Lyon “started to get more interested in the ways in which education around sexuality needed to be created,” Gallo says. Over their lifetimes, Martin and Lyon were connected to a range of causes, but “the through line is that they were always feminists,” Gallo shares. Whether it was the formation of the first national organization dedicated to lesbian women or challenging NOW to include lesbians in the mainstream second-wave feminist movement, the two were grounded in their commitment to the expansion of women’s rights.
In 1979, Martin wrote Battered Wives, one of the first books to raise awareness of women caught in abusive relationships and to offer legislative solutions. She used social, legal and historical lenses to demonstrate how societal power imbalances and marriage as an institution created the conditions for domestic abuse. Martin once said “I didn’t want to be a single-issue feminist, and I thought this issue would pull us all together.”
The other through line? “They were writers and they believed in the power of the written word,” explains Gallo; “they were also very invested in social change their whole lives.” Lyon’s early career as a journalist propelled her interest in writing and publishing, which ultimately culminated in the Ladder’s success.
In 1979, Martin and Lyon founded their own organization, Lyon-Martin Health Services, to serve marginalized women of color and trans patients. As they approached their late 60s, the couple joined “Old Lesbians Organizing for Change,” which sought to “eliminate the oppression of ageism and to stand in solidarity against all oppressions,” further solidifying their lifelong commitment to justice-seeking.
On February 13, 2003, Martin and Lyon celebrated their 50th anniversary together with the release of a documentary about their lives. Patsy Lynch, a photojournalist who centers her work on LGBTQ history, donated a button to the museum depicting Martin and Lyon together, alongside the date of their anniversary and the title of the documentary, No Secret Anymore. The button commemorates not only their years of activism, but also their love.
When Martin and Lyon were officially married June 16, 2008, they wore the same bright blue and soft purple pantsuits in which they were wed four years earlier. Martin and Lyon joyously celebrated that day with friends, fellow activists and family. Only two short months after their second marriage, Martin passed away from complications following an arm bone fracture. After their 55 years together, and two months of legal marriage, Lyon said, “I am devastated, but I take some solace in knowing we were able to enjoy the ultimate rite of love and commitment before she passed.”
Lyon lived to 95 years old. She continued to rejoice in stories of her activism in partnership with Martin until the end, and Gallo remembers her final years. “She had a cadre of young queer people—lesbian to bi to trans to non-binary—who cared for her daily.” In many ways, it was an opportunity for the next generation of queer people to give back to one of the foremothers of the movement. “I think she was kept alive longer because she had their energy and their love, and she adored them,” recalls Gallo. Lyon died of natural causes April 9, 2020.
Martin’s and Lyon’s legacies are intertwined and long-lasting. Their lifelong commitment to justice-seeking and truth-telling elucidates the history of the last 70 years of queer activism. “They did appreciate their role in history,” says Gallo. “And they appreciated that they were going to tell the tale the way they wanted it to be told.”