The Queer List, Part 1: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, Pool)

Del Martin, 87, center left, and Phyllis Lyon, 84, center right, are married by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom , center, in a special ceremony at City Hall in San Francisco, Monday, June 16, 2008. Also pictured are the couple's witnesses, Roberta Achtenberg, left, and Donna Hitchens. Lyon and Martin became the first officially married same sex couple after California's Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal.

Once upon a time, we all knew their names. They shaped our world and our attitudes to ourselves. We had their books on our bookshelves, since there were very few books on the subject. Or we read about their travails in our subterranean newspapers—Gay Community News, The Washington Blade—which we received in the mail, in brown manila envelopes so that we weren't outed unintentionally to our neighbors. (Yes, seriously.)

For the most part, the rest of the world ignored us. And so these figures who loomed so large in our lives were invisible to the rest of you. Who ever heard of Sharon Kowalski, except lesbians and some politically aware gay men? Or read the depressingly tragic Well of Loneliness (mentally comparing with its contemporary, the much more playful Orlandoif it weren't a mandatory part of your cultural history?

But of course, the world has changed radically since those bad old days. Now all of you—not just us homos and genderqueers—take our lives seriously. Exhibit A: Here I am, writing about us on a part of the internets that's not focused solely on homos.

To understand us, it helps to know a little more of our political and cultural history. Toward that end, I am herewith launching an intermittent series about some of the names and lives that have shaped the lesbian, gay, and to a lesser extent, transgender worlds. 

Disclaimer: This will be a quirky and personal list. I do not pretend to be writing a comprehensive history of every important LGBT figure. And if you think someone should be profiled, e-mail me, please: ejgraff @ prospect.org. 

Today's episode from the WayBack machine: Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon. Born in the 1920s, they met and fell in love in 1952, deep in the most anti-gay period of American history. Three years later, this iconic San Francisco couple founded the first American lesbian-rights organization, Daughters of Bilitis. At the time, they called it a "homophile" organization; it was a counterpart to the men's homophile group the Mattachine Society, founded around the same time. Since, at the time, you could be fired for being gay or arrested for dancing with another woman at a bar, DOB (as it was called) was a secret social society. Both of them were trained journalists, so Del and Phyllis (as everyone called them) launched a groundbreaking newsletter, The Ladder, that discussed lesbian life and politics. 

By the time I came around, in 1979, every lesbian I knew had a copy of their book, Lesbian/Woman. To me, the book seemed painfully outdated. My brave new generation was proudly out, determinedly "radical" (or so we thought), and the book's mild language of acceptance seemed incredibly tame. Going to DOB meetings in Boston in the early 1980s was almost embarrassing; the social groups were for old ladies in bad clothes. (I write this tongue-in-cheek, of course, amused to recall my younger snobbery—last week I was at a gay bar in Bangor, Maine, in a room full of women my age; a sharply dressed baby-dyke couple walked in, looked around, and walked right out, cracking us all up.)

But my own baby-dyke snobbery, however understandable in retrospect, was silly. In real life, Del and Phyllis changed far more than I ever will. They were on the cutting edge of all the changes they lived through. They organized against California's sodomy law in the 1960s. Del was the first open lesbian elected to the board of NOW, in 1973, after the bitter in-fighting about whether lesbians should be allowed in the NOW wing of the women's movement. They were part of the early battered women's movement, when "domestic violence" wasn't yet a phrase. They were critical in San Franciso G/L Democratic organizing, back in Harvey Milk's era. In the 1990s, they were senior activists, appointed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein to the White House Conference on Aging.

When Gavin Newsom decided to launch his rogue same-sex marriages at San Francisco City Hall, Valentine's Day weekend in 2004—marrying same-sex couples with no authorization from the legislature or courts, despite the 2000 Knight Initiative that had explicitly outlawed same-sex marriage—the National Center for Lesbian Rights' Executive Director Kate Kendall rightly nominated Del and Phyllis to be the first couple married. They were precisely the right couple to receive that aliyah, that honor. The courts voided those marriages. Then, on June 16, 2008, after California's Supreme Court ruled that restricting marriages to different-sex partners was against the state's constitution, Del and Phyllis were again the first California couple married under law. I remember, at the time, hearing nongay friends talk about how sweet it was to see this grandmotherly couple getting married. My jaw dropped to think that this lifelong activist pair could pass as grandmotherly—although they were, indeed, grandmothers, as Del had been heterosexually married and a mother before coming out—to the uninitiated. And yet of course it was true: It was incredibly sweet to see the lifelong pair taking their vows. 

Del Martin died in August 2008, at the age of 87, just two months after her legal marriage. The newlyweds had been together for 56 years. They changed the world. 

Here's a finding aid to the archives containing their papers

Here's a finding aid to their papers. 

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