Phyllis Lyon and Dorothy “Del” Martin met in Seattle in 1950 and fell in love while working together as journalists. They moved to San Francisco in 1953, where they spent decades advancing civil rights and equality as leaders and pioneers of the LGBTQ+ and women’s rights movements.
When the two women met, Martin was divorced and the mother of a young daughter, Kendra. Although the child’s father had primary custody, Lyon helped raise the girl.
Lyon (far right) and Martin (far left) founded the country’s first nationwide lesbian organization, Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), from their home in 1955. Started as a social club, DOB quickly took on political causes and within five years there were chapters throughout the U.S.
The next year Lyon and Martin launched The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication, editing it from their kitchen table until 1962. They used the publication both to advertise the work of Daughters of Bilitis and to expand awareness of the gay rights movement.
Lyon and Martin co-authored one of the first positive books about lesbians, Lesbian/Woman, published in 1972. Martin and Lyon (standing, second and third from right) are shown with their book at the American Library Association annual meeting.
In the early 1970s they joined the National Organization for Women (NOW). Throughout their involvement with NOW, they fought for lesbian recognition and encouraged the group to see that lesbian issues were feminist issues. In 1973 Martin became the first out lesbian woman elected to its board of directors.
Martin also took up the issue of domestic violence. She co-chaired NOW’s National Task Force on Battered Women and Household Violence from 1975 to 1977 and wrote one of the first books on the topic, published in 1976.
By the 1980s, the women’s other accomplishments included helping establish the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club, the first gay political organization in the U.S.; helping convince the American Psychiatric Association to declare that homosexuality was not a mental illness; helping defeat an initiative to ban gay and lesbian teachers from California schools; and founding the Council on Religion and the Homosexual.
Throughout their lives, Lyon and Martin were fierce advocates for human rights. In their last decades, they worked with Old Lesbians Organizing for Change and served as delegates to the White House Conference on Aging.
After a half-century together, Lyon and Martin finally got the chance to marry on February 12, 2004, after then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom authorized marriage licenses for same-sex couples. They were the first such couple to officially marry in the U.S. But the California Supreme Court soon invalidated their marriage. Then, in June 2008, the same court declared same-sex marriages legal. With Mayor Newsom presiding, Martin and Lyon wed again, in California’s first legal same-sex union.
Martin died just months after the couple’s second wedding, leaving Lyon to represent the couple who had become icons of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. She is shown with then-California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and then-San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act on June 26, 2013.
Lyon passed away in 2020. The next year, San Francisco granted landmark status to the little house with the big picture window that was the couple’s home from 1955 until their deaths. 651 Duncan Street, which the National Trust for Historic Preservation called “a place where women had a national impact on LGBTQ civil rights on par with Stonewall,” is the first lesbian landmark in the western U.S.
Lyon and Martin received numerous honors during their lifetimes. The Lyon-Martin Clinic in San Francisco was named after them, and they served as Grand Marshals or special guests in Gay Pride marches across the country. They also received the Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) , the organization’s highest honor.