Phyllis Lyon, pioneering lesbian activist, dies at 95

 sfchronicle.com  04/10/2020 03:56:30 

Phyllis Lyon, a lesbian activist who was relentless in her push for LGBTQ and women’s rights, and was rewarded for 50 years in the fight when she and her partner became the first same-sex couple to be legally wed in California, in 2008, died of natural causes Thursday morning at her San Francisco home.

Her death was confirmed by Kate Kendell, a close friend and former director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Lyon was 95.

Lyon and partner Del Martin co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis at their home on Duncan Street during the years of enforced invisibility for gay couples. The couple began publishing the Ladder, a typed newsletter produced monthly at their kitchen table and circulating nationally, which gave other groups the foundation on which to build a national movement.

In 1972, they published “Lesbian/Woman,” one of the first nonfiction books on the subject, also written at their kitchen table, in the same house where Martin lived until she died in 2008 two months after their marriage, and where Lyon died Thursday.

“We lost a giant today,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco. “Phyllis Lyon fought for LGBTQ equality when it was neither safe nor popular to do so. We owe Phyllis immense gratitude for her work. Rest in power.”

In a 2010 interview in The Chronicle, the 85-year-old Lyon told reporter Meredith May that she and Martin never intended to be the first gay couple married in San Francisco, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom declared it to be legal in 2004.

“We thought marriage was a bad deal for women,” she told May. But Kendell had recruited them as the symbolic couple and they went along with it. “It meant so much to so many people that we decided it was what we were supposed to do,” Lyon said. “We only had two days to get ready.”

Four years later, they were recruited to be the first couple again, when the State Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage to be legal.

“We wore the same suits, but we had to get the pants shortened. We’d shrunk,” Lyon told May. “Also by then, the benefits became obvious, like when Del died, there was no question about her insurance and inheritance. It all came to me, so that’s important.”

To Kendell, there could have been no other choice than for them to be the first gay people to be married — twice.

“Her life was marked by courage and the tenacious belief that the world must and could change,” she said. “Few individuals did more to advance women’s and LGBTQ rights than Phyllis Lyon.”

Phyllis Ann Lyon was born Nov. 10, 1924, in Tulsa, Okla. Her family moved to Sacramento, where she grew up, attending Sacramento High School. She graduated in 1946 from UC Berkeley, where she studied journalism and was editor of the Daily Californian student newspaper. After stints as a police reporter in Fresno and at the Chico Enterprise Record, Lyon was working at a magazine in Seattle when Martin got a job there.

“I peeked out of my office and saw her walking down the hall in a dark green suit, and she was carrying a briefcase,” Lyon told May. “I had never seen a woman with one before. I was impressed.”

Lyon left that job and was traveling when she met up with Martin, who had come to San Francisco to visit her parents. Martin took Lyon to a lesbian bar. They became partners in 1953 and bought a wood-and-glass house up a steep set of stairs in Noe Valley in 1955.

So began their life’s work in activism. They were “Phyllis and Del,” inseparable for the next 55 years. Lyon adopted and helped raise Martin’s daughter from her first marriage, Kendra Mon.

“They were very funny and they never interrupted each other like some couples do,” May said.

Lyon kept Martin’s ashes in a urn close at hand and told May that she still read out loud to her. There was plenty to read from. There were bookcases everywhere, books packed in with the overflow piled on the floor.

When the Rev. Cecil Williams arrived in 1963 as the minister of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, Lyon was his first administrative assistant. Over the years, she helped bring the gay community to Glide, where they became a major part of the culture.

“She inspired Cecil to conduct same-sex unions in the 1960s,” said Glide co-founder Janice Mirikitani, noting that it was one of the first churches in the country to do so.

Lyon and Martin also became active in San Francisco’s first gay political organization, the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, which was a major factor in outlawing discrimination in hiring.

“Phyllis changed countless lives for the better,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement. “Through decades of organizing, activism, and writing, Phyllis helped advance civil rights protections, created robust support networks for LGBTQ people, and established political and advocacy organizations that continue her work to this day.”

Survivors include her sister, Patricia Lyon of Berkeley; daughter Kendra Mon of Santa Rosa; granddaughter Lorri Mon; and grandson Kevin Mon. A public memorial is pending.

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: swhiting@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SamWhitingSF

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