Phyllis Lyon, Incomparable Lesbian Civil Rights Activist, Has Died at 95

The Bay Area Reporter is reporting that Phyllis Lyon, lesbian activist and half of first legally married same-sex couple in California along with her wife Del Martin, has died in her home at age 95. Martin passed away in 2008 at the age of 87, a few weeks after their marriage. In their years together, Lyon and Martin had made contributions to the progress of LGBT rights in California and the US far beyond getting married; they met as staff at a magazine, and co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, the first lesbian civil rights organization in the US. After its founding, the couple also began publishing The Ladder, the first monthly lesbian publication in the US and direct ancestor of the publication you are currently reading. After the shuttering of The Ladder in 1972, the couple published the book Lesbian/Woman, a seminal print work on the meaning of lesbian womanhood that was life-changing for a generation.

In San Francisco specifically, where the couple made their home, Lyon and Martin were involved in the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, and were delegates to the White House Conference on Aging, where they pushed to have gay & lesbian experiences added to the agenda. Lyon-Martin Health Services was named and established in their honor. Throughout their lives, Martin and Lyon’s work focused on economic parity, health outcomes, and material forms of equality for the LGBT community and for elderly LGBT folks — ironically, same-sex marriage was never a major focus of theirs personally, but they agreed to get married during the push for marriage equality in 2008 at the behest of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and made history as the first married gay couple in the state.

It’s truly impossible to talk meaningfully about lesbian history and organizing in the US without drawing from the contributions of Phyllis Lyon; it’s incredibly rare that one person contributes so much to the lives of generations of a community, and it is with deep gratitude that we mourn her passing and celebrate her life.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

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6 Comments

  1. What an incredible loss. Since you mention the clinic named and established in their honor, I think it’s worth noting that that clinic is currently in danger of imminent closure and fighting to keep their doors open. Here’s some information about that, hope that that is ok.

    “As you may have heard, without the immediate allocation of funds, Lyon-Martin Health Services (LMHS) and the Women’s Community Clinic (WCC) will relocate and consolidate with their parent organization HealthRight360 (HR360). On May 1, 2020, HR360 will reduce LMHS/WCC clients served by 90%, lay off the majority of their staff, and relocate the one remaining medical provider to their Integrated Care Center. The provider will be available 8 hours/week in an environment in which little to no queer and trans competency training has occurred. This will leave thousands of sexual and gender minorities without their primary care home in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    There is less than a month to raise enough support and funding for LMHS/WCC to continue providing services at current capacity in their dedicated, independent safe space.

    These mission-driven, community-led clinics have been providing full-scope primary care, gynecological care, abortion care, and mental health care with specific sensitivity to gender and sexuality for 40 years. Currently, they serve more trans clients than any other community clinic in the Bay Area. In addition, with the majority of LMHS/WCC staff identifying as queer and trans themselves, they truly embody a “by us for us” model of community care. Their unique workforce development programs have educated thousands of current and future health professionals on queer and trans inclusive care, many of whom go on to become leaders in the field themselves.

    We want to continue doing this work! Unfortunately, we have had a very difficult time obtaining a commitment from the Mayor’s office to allocate funds to us due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    **Ways you can help**

    1) Sign on to our petition letter as an organization and/or individual to support our ask to the City to invest in the survival of these historical clinics and the communities they serve.

    2) Contribute to or share our GoFundMe campaign.

    3) Call the Mayor Breed’s office at (415) 554-5977 and put pressure on her to meet with us and commit to our survival.

    4) Share your story. Send a written letter or video testimony (not to this thread) about the impact these clinics have had on you or your community.

    5) Follow us on Instagram @savelyonmartin for updates.

    6) Organize a fundraiser for us!

    Feel free to forward this to your networks. We need all the help we can get right now!”

  2. Anyone else somewhat depressed about the fact that no one in America much knows who this woman is? Like, they are just discovering Bayard Rustin. How much longer before Phyllis and Del are recognized? I take comfort in our community, and the people that DO know what a fearless hero she was. The heart aches.

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