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Lyon, Phyllis, (b. 1924) and Del Martin (1921-2008)  
 
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Two courageous women who became lovers during one of the most socially conservative eras in American history, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were among the founders of a lesbian liberation movement that developed and enlarged the very definition of lesbianism.

In their early influential book, Lesbian/Woman (1972), Lyon and Martin challenged any view of lesbians that focused only on sexuality by defining a lesbian as "as a woman whose primary erotic, psychological, emotional and social interest is in a member of her own sex, even though that interest might not be overtly expressed." This concept not only opened the door for women who had never been sexual with women to see themselves as lesbians, but it also laid the foundation for a woman-identified subculture that became the basis for the lesbian movement of the 1970s. Martin and Lyon also became role models for lesbian couples by staying in a committed relationship for over fifty years.

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Early Lives

Martin was born in San Francisco on May 5, 1921; Lyon in Tulsa, Oklahoma on November 10, 1924, but raised and educated in San Francisco. They both pursued journalism majors in college, Martin at San Francisco State College, Lyon at University of California, Berkeley.

When Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon met in Seattle in 1949, where they worked for a publishing company, Martin, who had been briefly married, was a 29-year-old lesbian mother, and Lyon was 25 and straight. In 1952, they became lovers, and in 1953, they moved to San Francisco, where they remained in the same house for the next fifty years.

Daughters of Bilitis

In 1955, seeking a social life with other lesbians, they and a group of friends formed an organization called the Daughters of Bilitis, named after a book of lesbian love poetry: Songs of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs. The name was deliberately chosen to be recognizable by the cognoscenti, but obscure to others.

In 1956, DOB issued a twelve-page, mimeographed newsletter called The Ladder, edited by Lyon. An accommodationist organization, soon to be closely associated with the Mattachine Society, a predominantly male group, DOB became the first national lesbian society; and The Ladder, the first overtly lesbian journal, achieved national circulation. Because of the conservative climate of the 1950s, membership in DOB was secret, and Lyons used a pseudonym for her work on the first few issues of The Ladder.

By the early 1960s, DOB had spawned chapters throughout the country, in such cities as Chicago, New York, New Orleans, San Diego, Los Angles, Detroit, Denver, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. In the early 1960s, subscriptions to The Ladder reached about 500 copies, though it was read by considerably more women, as copies were passed along to people who were too frightened to subscribe.

Although Lyon and Martin devoted a great deal of their resources to the organization, younger, more radical feminists came to the fore and, in a bitter power struggle, attempted to make DOB more militant. By 1970, Lyon and Martin had been displaced as the leaders of the organization, which soon disbanded.

Lesbian Activists

Lyon and Martin, meanwhile, had become very active in San Francisco politics and in the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, which had been formed in the mid-1960s to help end police harassment of gay bars. A particularly egregious raid of a New Year's Ball on January 1, 1965, led religious leaders in San Francisco to condemn the police action. Subsequently, the CRH endorsed homosexual law reform and other measures designed to improve the lives of homosexuals in San Francisco.

In 1970, Martin wrote a widely distributed article in the Advocate entitled "Goodbye, My Alienated Brothers," in which she rebuked the male chauvinism of the homophile movement. Although at the time Lyon and Martin flirted with lesbian separatism, they subsequently became leaders in helping improve the relations between the sexes in the glbtq movement.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lyon and Martin also worked to address the lesbophobia of the women's movement. Although there were prominent lesbians in the National Organization for Women, many leaders, including especially Betty Friedan, one of the organization's founding mothers, were perceived as . In 1971, at the NOW's national conference in Los Angeles, the organization finally passed a resolution affirming that the oppression of lesbians is a feminist concern.

In 1972, Lyon and Martin helped form the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club to help lesbians get elected to public office. Both women subsequently served in a number of capacities on city commissions and task forces.

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Top: Del Martin (left) and Phyllis Lyon at their wedding celebration in 2008. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom stands behind them.
Above: A tribute to Del Martin posted on San Francisco's City Hall following Martin's death in 2008.

  
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