Life

Iconic lesbian activist Phyllis Lyon passes away at 95

Del Martin, center left, and Phyllis Lyon, 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.
Del Martin, left, and Phyllis Lyon are married by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2008.Photo: (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, Pool)

Legendary lesbian activist Phyllis Ann Lyon passed away of natural causes at her home in San Francisco at age 95. LGBTQ leaders all over the country have honored her life.

“I will miss her so much,” wrote former National Center for Lesbian Rights executive director Kate Kendell on Facebook.

Related: Marriage equality wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for these lesbian icons

Lyon and her wife Del Martin are perhaps best known in this century for being the first same-sex couple married by then San Francisco in February and March of 2004. This happened several months after the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized marriage equality in that state in 2003, and then Mayor Gavin Newsom (D) said that the equal protection clause of California’s constitution gave him the authority to open marriage up to same-sex couples.

The wedding, according to Lyon, was “over very fast… four minutes?” and was later annulled by the California Supreme Court.

In 2008, Martin and Lyon were married by Newsom again when the California Supreme Court legalized marriage equality. Several weeks later, Martin passed away due to complications from a bone fracture.

Born in 1924, Lyon devoted her life to activism for LGBTQ people, women, and the elderly.

She and Martin fell in love and moved in with each other in the early 1950s – over a decade before the Stonewall riots – and several years later they co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil rights organization in the U.S.

Lyon edited the organization’s magazine, The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the U.S. In 2004, Martin and Lyon were among the first inductees into the LGBT Journalists Hall of Fame because of the magazine.

In the 1960s, they were active in the National Organization for Women as well as a couple and they helped push the organization to accept lesbian issues as women’s issues. By the 1970s, they were involved in Democratic politics and were among the first members of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club.

And in the 1990s, Lyon got involved in senior activism and she was named by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to the White House Conference on Aging.

LGBTQ activists and political leaders remember her fondly.

It is with a heavy heart that I share the news that Phyllis Lyon has left this life. She died peacefully this morning at 95 of natural causes. She and Del are dancing again. I will miss her so much.

Posted by Kate Kendell on Thursday, April 9, 2020

HRC president Alphonso David said Lyon was “one of the giants whose shoulders we stand on today.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said Lyon “left an indelible mark on San Francisco.”

In a statement, she recalled a Lyon and Martin’s first wedding, held in her house in the 1970s. “It was such a celebration of love.”

“Phyllis was a real power, not only for San Francisco but for the country, and I’ll truly miss her energy, determination, and kindness,” Feinstein said.

Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg (D), said he’s “eternally grateful for advocates and pioneers like Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who believed we are all worthy of love and equality.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) said she is “honored” to have been friends with Lyon and Martin.

“Phyllis Lyon lived one hell of a long life, dedicated to being fearless in her authenticity and fighting for LGBTQ folks, women, the elderly, and so many others,” tweeted HRC’s Charlotte Clymer. “She and her wife Del Martin broke barriers for all of us. This is a heartbreaking loss, but what a warrior. Rest easy.”

House Speaker Pelosi said she is “heartbroken to learn of the passing of Phyllis Lyon: an icon of San Francisco and an LGBTQ rights trailblazer who used her voice to fight for justice and hold our nation accountable to its Founding values.”

State Sen. Scott Weiner (D) noted that Lyon and Martin fought for LGBTQ equality “when it was neither safe nor popular to do so.”

“We owe Phyllis intense gratitude & love for her work,” he said.

And Gov. Newsom, who legally married Martin and Lyon in 2008, wrote: “It was the honor of a lifetime to marry you & Del. Your courage changed the course of history.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Gavin Newsom married Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin in 2004. He married them in 2008; they were married by the City Clerk in 2004.

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