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The San Francisco Couple Whose Lifelong Love Changed America

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A white bespectacled woman wearing a checked dress smiles warmly at another white woman as they sit close together on a couch. A wall lined with books is behind them.
(L) Phyllis Lyon and (R) Del Martin at home in San Francisco in July 1972. (Clem Albers/ San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)


hen Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon co-authored Lesbian/Woman in 1972, the effect was seismic. Dedicated to “daughters throughout the world who are struggling with their identity,” the book began with a clear, unequivocal explanation:

A Lesbian is a woman whose primary erotic, psychological, emotional and social interest is in a member of her own sex.

That a book about lesbian culture would even require such a definition feels bizarre today. But the lifelong work of San Francisco couple Martin and Lyon is one of the reasons that so few people require such annotations now. Lesbian/Woman didn’t just demystify same-sex female relationships — it calmly and clearly sought to normalize them. At the time, few representations of lesbians existed outside of lurid pulp fiction or psychology textbooks. Lesbian/Woman changed the conversation and reassured queer women everywhere that there was nothing wrong with them.

When Martin and Lyon began their relationship in 1952, after two years of friendship, America was a terrifying place to be LGBTQ. Looking back in 1995, the couple wrote an essay recalling the “climate of fear, rejection and oppression” that marked the earliest days of their 56-year romance. “Lesbians and gay men, if found out,” the pair wrote, “were subject to reprisals from all quarters of society: employers, police, military, government, family and friends.”

With that in mind — after moving into a Castro District apartment together on Valentine’s Day in 1953 — Martin and Lyon sought friendships with fellow lesbians outside of the oft-raided gay bars. That led to the establishment in 1955 of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian-rights organization in the U.S.

Originally the idea of Rosalie Bamberger, a local Filipina factory worker,  the nonprofit started with just four couples. Martin was the club’s first president, and by the end of its first year, DOB had 15 official members. From there, the group expanded their ranks via the Daughters of Bilitis newsletter and, starting in October 1956, The Ladder, a groundbreaking lesbian magazine edited by Lyon. She held a degree in journalism from UC Berkeley, and had worked in magazines and newspapers since the ’40s — but here, she published under the pseudonym Ann Ferguson.

Three black and white covers of magazines. The first shows an androgynous person, the second features two cats, and the third is a sketch of a couple, viewed from behind, watching a sunset.
Issues of ‘The Ladder,’ a magazine for lesbians that began publishing in 1956. (The Internet Archive)

Lyon’s pen name wasn’t the only reflection of the fear-of-being-found-out that marked the era: Daughters of Bilitis’ name came from Songs of Bilitis, a collection of lesbian love poems published in 1894 by Pierre Louÿs, who claimed the text was based on ancient Greek scripts. If anyone asked, the women could say that DOB was merely a club for women who were passionate about Greek poetry.


And in 1960, when the organization’s first conference was held in the penthouse of San Francisco’s Hotel Whitcomb, all attendees were careful to wear skirts and dresses, lest they be accused of cross-dressing. (They were right to do so: SFPD’s “homosexual detail” showed up to see if anything nefarious was going on.) At one point, Martin and Lyon were so concerned about their office being raided and the DOB mailing list being exposed, they hid the document in the back of their station wagon.

Still, DOB persisted, acting as a support and social group, and as a source of information for its members. Even in the organization’s earliest days, Martin carried herself with an unrivaled fortitude. In 1959, she attended a Mattachine Society convention in Denver to voice her dissatisfaction with the gay organization’s attitude towards women. Pointing out that the group was 99% male, Martin announced from the stage: “Lesbians are not satisfied to be auxiliary members or second-class homosexuals. One of Mattachine’s aims is that of sexual equality. May I suggest that you start with the lesbian?”

Martin channeled that energy into her writing as well. Her first solo book, Battered Wives, was published in 1976, becoming the first American book to discuss domestic violence in depth. By then, Martin was also the first out lesbian to have served on the National Organization of Women’s board of directors. Lyon was a fellow NOW member, which made them the first out lesbian couple to join.


he ’70s were a time of great change for Martin and Lyon. Daughters of Bilitis and The Ladder both came to an unceremonious halt in 1970 because of intragroup politics and a couple of bad actors. Without either entity to pour their energy into, Martin and Lyon instead focused on writing Lesbian/Woman — and this time, with incredible bravery, they used their real names. A year later came Lesbian Love and Liberation: The Yes Book of Sex, a sex-positive guide that Martin and Lyon wrote to encourage tolerance, consent and frankness in the bedroom. The very first page came out guns blazing:

Yes, everyone has a right to a good sex life — including persons who have physical disabilities. Yes, sexuality is the most individualistic part of a person’s life. It is up to each individual to determine and then to assume responsibility for her or his own sexuality. Yes, sex is okay in its varying modes of expression — if people know what they are doing, feel good about it and don’t harm others.

Less than two years after Lesbian/Woman’s release, and just months after Lesbian Love and Liberation came out, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders finally stopped defining homosexuality as a mental illness.

By 1979, the couple had established the Lyon-Martin Women’s Health Center in San Francisco — a safe space for lesbian couples to receive healthcare. “We were trying to help lesbians find themselves,” Lyon said in 1989. “I mean, you can’t have a movement if you don’t have people that see that they’re worthwhile.” (Today, the clinic is also focused on serving trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming and intersex people.)

Throughout the ’90s, as LGBTQ people increasingly found acceptance in America, Martin and Lyon celebrated how far they had come in a series of interviews and essays. While the San Francisco Examiner referred to them as “the mothers of lesbian visibility,” the couple remained hilariously open about how long it took them to figure themselves out. In one 1992 interview, Martin joked about Lyon being a “straight lesbian for a while,” even after they were living together as a couple. Lyon laughed at the memory, admitting, “I was a little slow…”

In 2004, Martin and Lyon became the first same-sex couple to marry in San Francisco. At a mass wedding reception for 600 newlyweds on Feb. 23, 2004, Lyon said: “I think it’s important for a lot of the people that got married … but also for our friends who didn’t get married.”

A 2004 San Francisco marriage license.
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon’s first marriage certificate. (Courtesy of the San Francisco History Center)

The unions were frustratingly short-lived — within a month, the California Supreme Court had declared every same-sex marriage that had just taken place in San Francisco invalid.

But four years later, Lyon and Martin proudly returned to City Hall and made things official once more, after the California Supreme Court’s landmark decision on marriage equality. The couple were literally first in line, just as they had been in 2004, and were married by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom — the man who had sanctioned their first wedding. They even wore the same mauve and turquoise suits they had worn for their first ceremony. (Those outfits are now held in San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society’s permanent collection.)

It was an enormously meaningful day for the couple. When Martin died at the age of 87, less than three months after their wedding, 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.” Castro’s Pride flag and the flags at City Hall flew at half-mast in Martin’s honor.

Lyon soldiered on without her love for another 12 years. She died in 2020, aged 95, at home in San Francisco. On learning of the news, Gavin Newsom tweeted: “Phyllis — It was the honor of a lifetime to marry you & Del. Your courage changed the course of history.”

It would be a gross understatement to say that Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon’s love, and their willingness to speak openly and often about it, impacted America’s view of same-sex unions. The couple spent their whole lives putting themselves in the spotlight — and sometimes grave danger — to raise awareness, and to help women still struggling with their own sexualities.


In 2017, Lyon reminded the world why she and Martin had lived their lives in service. “If you’ve got stuff you want to change, you have to get out and work on it,” she said. “You can’t just sit around and say ‘I wish this or that was different.’ You have to fight for it.”

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