Pioneering Lesbian and Civil Rights Activist Phyllis Lyon Dies at Age 95

Founding San Francisco Bay Times contributor, pioneering lesbian, and civil rights activist Phyllis Lyon has died at age 95, according to Bay Times columnist Kate Kendell, who was mentored by Lyon and served as the former executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Lyon died on the morning of Thursday, April, 9 of natural causes.

Lyon was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on November 10, 1924. After earning a degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, she worked as a reporter and journalist for several years. In 1950, she met Del Martin and the two became partners a few years later. In 1955, the couple moved to a Castro Street apartment and, with three other lesbian couples, helped to found the Daughters of Bilitis, which was the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the U.S.

After moving to a home in Noe Valley, which remained their longtime permanent residence, they began publication of The Ladder in 1956. It was the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the country, and continued until 1972.

In 1964, Lyon and Martin helped to found the Council on Religion and the Homosexual with Glide Memorial Methodist Church. This was the first group in the U.S. to use the word “homosexual” in its name. Three years later, they became the first lesbian couple to join the National Organization for Women, and subsequently helped to expand that influential organization’s policies to include lesbian rights.

The couple in 1972 were among the first members of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club. That same year, they authored the groundbreaking book Lesbian Woman, which is considered to be a foundational text of lesbian feminism. This work was followed by Lesbian Love and Liberation, published in 1973.

In 1978, the pair chaired San Franciscans Against Proposition 6 (Briggs Initiative). With Cleve Jones and numerous other LGBTQ community leaders, they also became founding contributors of the San Francisco Bay Times. The following year, activists founded Lyon-Martin Health Services and named it after them. Now a program of HealthRight 360, Lyon-Martin Health Services continues to provide specialized, non-judgmental healthcare to women and to LGBTQ individuals.

Lyon and Martin were early supporters of now Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi when she was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1987.

The film Last Call at Maud’s, released in 1993, chronicled the lives of Lyon and Martin, along with other Bay Area-based lesbian community leaders and members. The 2003 documentary No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon as well as the book and film Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Birth of the Lesbian Rights Movement are among other works that highlight their achievements.

The couple in 1995 served as delegates to the White House Conference on Aging. In 2000, they made the brave decision to sign on as a plaintiff couple in In re Marriage Cases filed against the California law enacted by the passage of Proposition 22. On February 12, 2004, launching the “Winter of Love,” Martin and Lyon were issued a marriage license by the City and County of San Francisco after then mayor Gavin Newsom ordered that marriage licenses be given to same-sex couples who requested them.

The marriage license of the devoted couple, along with those of several thousand other same-sex couples, was voided on August 12 of the same year by the California Supreme Court. It took four more years before Lyon and Martin could be legally wed yet again. The mayor presided over the memorable ceremony that took place on June 16, 2008, making them the first same-sex couple to be married in San Francisco after the California Supreme Court decision concerning In re Marriage Cases legalized same-sex marriage in the state. Martin passed with Lyon by her side just four years later.

It was not until June 26, 2015, that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, thereby legalizing it in all fifty states.

After Martin’s passing, Lyon remained very active in the San Francisco LGBTQ community by lending her support to numerous organizations, promoting civil rights causes, and attending numerous events, including those produced by “Betty’s List” and the San Francisco Bay Times. She was thrilled when the play The Daughters, based on her and others’ lesbian activism, held its world premiere at the San Francisco Playhouse on October 9, 2019.

Lyon celebrated her 95th birthday on Sunday, November 10, 2019, with Kendell and Rocket Science Associates CEO Joyce Newstat. It was a joyous day for all that was commemorated with a special issue of the San Francisco Bay Times. As Kendell shared, “We drove, ate, laughed, talked. And felt grateful every second.”

On the occasion of Lyon’s final birthday, numerous friends paid tribute to her for the San Francisco Bay Times. Those tributes may be found at: https://bit.ly/3bTzXDV

Kendell shares that the family wishes to thank the devoted caregivers and community members whose devotion and commitment gave Lyon joy and security in her final years.

Survivors are her beloved sister Patricia Lyon, her devoted daughter Kendra Mon, son-in-law Eugene Lane (dubbed by Lyon an honorary lesbian), granddaughter Lorri Mon, grandson Kevin Mon, his wife Ellen, and Lyon’s great granddaughter Kexin Mon.

The family requests that gifts in honor of Phyllis be made to the Lyon-Martin Health Clinic: https://bit.ly/3b8C1bv