Phyllis Lyon, LGBT Rights Pioneer, Dies at 95

LGBTQ rights trailblazers Phyllis Lyon (right) and Del Martin (center) cut their wedding cake on June 16, 2008. After the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, Lyon and Martin were the first same-sex couple legally married in California in a ceremony at City Hall conducted by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom. (Ryan Anson/AFP via Getty Images)

Phyllis Lyon, a pioneer in the struggle for lesbian and gay rights, died Thursday morning in San Francisco of natural causes at the age of 95.

She was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1924 but spent her formative years in Sacramento before graduating from UC Berkeley. In 1955, Lyon and her late wife Del Martin, along with three other lesbian couples, co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the nation's first organization devoted to promoting the rights of lesbians. It was just part of Lyon's lifelong advocacy for LGBT people.

"The words 'icon' and 'legend' can get thrown around a little loosely, but in Phyllis’ case they are an understatement," said Kate Kendell, former executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, noting that their earliest advocacy came at a time when government and society were hostile to gay and lesbian people, barely recognizing their existence, let alone rights.

"She and Del, when not only was there a lethality to being out as a queer person, but you clearly could not get a job or maintain a job ... (and) in most places you would be jailed ... founded the first lesbian organization. They published the first lesbian magazine distributed nationwide, typed it on their typewriter at their kitchen table in order for women to connect with one another," Kendell said.

After starting their advocacy on behalf of lesbians, Lyon and Martin later broadened their efforts to include bisexuals, gay men and women generally.

"There's literally no place in the lives of LGBTQ people that has not been impacted by the contributions both of them made," Kendell said.

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Lyon graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in journalism in 1946. In the 1940s, she worked as a reporter for the Chico Enterprise-Record before moving to Seattle. It's there that she met Del Martin where they both worked on the staff of a local magazine. The couple moved to San Francisco in 1953, where they published The Ladder, a lesbian-focused magazine.

Lyon and Martin were active in San Francisco politics with the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, which lobbied then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein to help pass legislation banning employment discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Phyllis Lyon (left) and Del Martin in 2004.
Phyllis Lyon (left) and Del Martin in 2004. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

In a statement Thursday, Sen. Feinstein said, “I’m so sad at the passing of Phyllis Lyon, a trailblazer, a fearless activist and a good friend. She truly left an indelible mark on San Francisco."

In the 1970s, Feinstein hosted a ceremony for Lyon and Martin in her backyard.

"It was such a celebration of love, and it wasn’t to be their last nuptials," Feinstein said. In 1979, activists created Lyon-Martin Health Services, a women-focused clinic named in their honor.

In 2008, after the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, Lyon and Martin were the first same-sex couple legally married in California in a ceremony at San Francisco City Hall conducted by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom. Martin died a few weeks later at the age of 87.

On Twitter, Gov. Newsom said, "Phyllis and Del were the manifestation of love and devotion. Yet for over 50 years they were denied the right to say 2 extraordinary words: I do."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Lyon "a trailblazer in the fight for civil rights" and "a tireless champion for the most vulnerable among us."

A celebration of Lyon's life is being planned. Meanwhile, the family requests that gifts in her honor be made to Lyon-Martin Health Services.