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.