Phyllis Lyon, Early Pioneer of Lesbian Rights

Published in: July-August 2020 issue.


Phyllis Lyon (standing) and Del Martin in their San Francisco home, 2008. Deanne Fitzmaurice photo.

WIDELY acknowledged as the cofounder, with Del Martin, of the first lesbian organization in the U.S., the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), Phyllis Lyon died of natural causes in San Francisco on April 9, 2020, at the age of 95. She was born on November 10, 1924, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, grew up in California, and graduated in 1946 from the University of California-Berkeley. A journalism major, she began working in California and by 1952 had relocated to Seattle to work as an associate editor at a trade publication, Pacific Builder and Engineer.

            Del Martin, who was working at the same magazine, made a big impression. Lyon later recalled: “I peeked out of my office and saw her walking down the hall in a dark green suit, and she was carrying a briefcase. I had never seen a woman with one before.” By 1955, the two women had purchased a house together in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. They married, twice, once in February 2004 during a brief period when Mayor Gavin Newsom issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples, later invalidated by the California Supreme Court, and again in May, 2008, as soon as same-sex marriage became legal in California. Del Martin died on August 27, 2008, age the age of 87.

            The DOB, established in 1955 in part to offer an alternative to lesbian bar culture, began to publish a newsletter, The Ladder, which evolved into a magazine that lasted from 1956 to 1972. Lyon, the original editor, used the name “Ann Ferguson” (a combination of her middle name and her mother’s birth name) for three issues, after which she decided to revert to her real name, and continued as editor, using her own name, until 1960. Using one’s real name in this public way was a courageous act at this time. The DOB gradually expanded from a social club to encompass education and activism. In 1968, Lyon began working with the National Sex Forum, lecturing on human sexuality and lesbianism, among other topics. Lyon and Martin had helped found the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in 1964 and were active in San Francisco’s first gay political organization, the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, founded in the early 1970s.

            The history of the DOB was documented by Marcia Gallo in 2006 in Different Daughters. The 1972 memoir, Lesbian/Woman by Lyon and Martin was reprinted with updates in 1983 and 1991. The 2003 documentary No Secret Anymore: The Time of Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon told the story of their activism in the pre-Stonewall era. Their papers are located at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. Phyllis Lyon is survived by her sister and by Del Martin’s daughter Kendra, whom she adopted and helped raise, and two grandchildren.