Phyllis Lyon was born on November 10, 1924, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and raised primarily in northern California. She graduated from Sacramento High School in 1943 and went on to the University of California-Berkeley, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in journalism in 1946. She served as a police-beat and general reporter at the Chico Enterprise-Record during the 1940s. In the early 1950s she served on the editorial staff at two building trades magazines in Seattle, Washington.
Del Martin was born Dorothy L. Taliaferro in San Francisco, California, on May 5, 1921, to Jones and Mary Taliaferro. She was salutatorian of the first graduating class of George Washington High School in San Francisco. She studied journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and at San Francisco State College. Her last name was changed to Martin during a four-year marriage to a man; she later changed her first name to Del.
Lyon and Martin met in Seattle, Washington, when Martin joined the staff of a business that published daily construction reports where Lyon worked. They quickly became good friends and within two years became romantically involved. They moved in together in San Francisco in 1953. In 1955, they were part of a group of eight lesbians that founded the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), in part to counteract the loneliness and isolation they felt as lesbians. Lyon was the first editor of DOB's monthly magazine, The Ladder, beginning in 1956 and into 1960. Del succeeded Phyllis as editor in 1960 to 1962. She was followed by a number of other editors until 1970 when the magazine was no longer a DOB project. Martin was DOB national president from 1957 to 1960. Martin and Lyon were both instrumental in organizing DOB's first national convention at a downtown San Francisco hotel in 1960.
In 1962, Lyon, Martin and other early lesbian and gay activists met with state legislators to urge them to change California sex laws that criminalized homosexuals. The legislators encouraged them to secure support from religious leaders. Shortly thereafter Phyllis and Del met Ted McIlvenna, a Methodist clergy doing young adult outreach at the Glide Urban Center, and some other young, progressive clergy. Lyon and Martin accepted McIlvenna's invitation to participate in an historic consultation between religious leaders and gay and lesbian activists in the early summer of 1964. They insisted on a larger lesbian participation at this consultation and got agreement for three other DOB members to join them there. This consultation led to the formation of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH) later that year.
Lyon and Martin both served on the initial board of directors of CRH. They played key roles in organizing and staffing the infamous Mardi Gras Ball on New Year's Day 1965 at California Hall where police harassment of participants was challenged by CRH leaders. Phyllis was hired at the Glide Foundation as McIlvenna's assistant and became the de facto staff person for CRH for a number of years. With McIlvenna, she founded the National Sex and Drug Forum (1968) and began a career as a sex educator. She was one of the founding faculty members of The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, a graduate school that grants doctoral and other degrees in sexology, in 1976.
Del and Phyllis were among the first out lesbians to join the National Organization for Women (NOW), insisting on the couple's membership rate. They helped lead efforts at the 1971 and 1973 NOW conventions to adopt resolutions that linked the oppression of lesbians with feminist issues. Martin was the first out lesbian elected to the NOW board.
In 1972, Lyon and Martin wrote and had published Lesbian/Woman, a ground-breaking book that portrayed lesbian lives in a positive, affirming way. Martin wrote Battered Wives in 1976, that served as a catalyst for the organizing movements against domestic violence and networks of shelters for battered women.
Del was a leader in the campaign that resulted in the 1973 decision of the American Psychiatric Association to declare that homosexuality was not a mental illness. Lyon chaired San Franciscans Against Proposition 6 (the Briggs Initiative) in 1978 that defeated the initiative to ban gay and lesbian teachers. They both attended the International Women's Year Conference in 1977 where they were instrumental in efforts to highlight the rights and concerns of lesbians.
Published works that Lyon and Martin authored or co-authored on religious issues that affect the well being of lesbians and gay men include: "The Realities of Lesbianism," (originally appeared in motive magazine, March-April 1969), published in The New Women, New York, Bobbs-Merrill, 1970; "A Lesbian Approach to Theology," a short critique on a paper by John von Rohr in Is Gay Good? A Symposium on Homosexuality, Theology and Ethics, edited by W. Dwight Oberholtzer, Westminster Press, 1971; a chapter in Sexual Latitude, 1971; Lesbian/Woman, San Francisco, Glide Publications, 1972, revised Bantam, 1983; updated, Volcano Press, 1991; Lesbian Love and Liberation, San Francisco, Multi Media Resource Center, 1972; "A Historic Consultation: The Church and the Homosexual" in Open Hands,Winter, 1990. In addition, Phyllis co-authored: with Rev. Ted McIlvenna, "What Do We Say About Pornography?" in Church and Society, March-April 1970; and with Rev. Tom Maurer, "Homosexuals Are Persons," in Spectrum, November-December, 1971.
They have continued their activism in more recent years with Old Lesbians Organizing for Change and many other local and national organizations. Among the many awards they have received are: Lyon-Martin Women's Health Services in San Francisco was named for them in 1980; Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award from the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California in 1990; an Outstanding Public Service Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality in 1996; and grand marshals or special honorees at many Gay & Lesbian Pride parades and festivals throughout the U.S. They were honored as "Leading Voices" for LGBT people in faith communities by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at its 2001 conference.
A documentary film about their lives, No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, directed by JEB (Joan E. Biren) was premiered as part of their 50th anniversary celebration on February 13, 2003. Phyllis and Del marked another historic first one year later, when they became the first same-sex couple to officially get a marriage license in San Francisco on February 12, 2004. Del Martin died on August 27, 2008. Phyllis Lyon died on April 9, 2020.
(Information for this biographical statement taken from the finding aid to the Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin Papers at the GLBT Historical Society and articles in the March 2003 and June 2003 issues of The OLOC Reporter. Photo by Jane Cleland.)
Biography Date: March, 2005