Our Heroes

An interview with pioneering lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.

By Deb Murphy
Photos by Liz Mangelsdorf, courtesy National Center for Lesbian Rights

EDITOR’S NOTE: In memory of pioneering lesbian Del Martin, who passed away August 27, we reprint this OutSmart interview with Martin and her wife Phyllis Lyon, originally published February 2005 on the occasion of their historic marriage.

Del Martin (right) and Phyllis Lyon

If you don’t know Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, you should. The two women, a couple for more than 50 years, are among the founding mothers in the GLBT-rights movement. In 1955, they helped establish the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national society. Their books Lesbian/Woman and Lesbian Love and Liberation have influenced generations of women and men. And that’s just a hint of their importance to the cause.

I sat down with Martin and Lyon over dinner when they were in Houston to speak at the Old Lesbians Organizing for Change 2004 Gathering in October. –Deb Murphy


Deb Murphy: Let’s start with the standard lesbian question. How did you meet?
Phyllis Lyon: We met in 1950. I was up in Seattle, and they hired Del to take care of the daily construction report. I was doing the monthly magazine, and she was doing the daily. We became good friends. I didn’t know anything about lesbians, not even the word. She and another women we worked with and I went over to have a drink after work. And somehow the subject of homosexuality came up. One of us, either me or Pat, asked, “Del, how come you know so much about that?” And she said, “Because I am one.” I was really excited; that was the most interesting thing I had learned in a century. I went home and called everyone I knew and told them, and that basically was the women I worked with. I didn’t call the guys. Fortunately, that didn’t do any harm.

One friend was Iris. We had both been friends with her and her husband, Jim. We spent a night out at their house one time. Jim told Iris she couldn’t have anything to do with me as long as I was having anything to do with Del. We lost that friend and that was it.

As far as I know, nobody ever told the guys. If they did, it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. I kept my mouth shut after that. Of course, I didn’t realize what I was doing. So then we continued to be friends. The reason I left the job was that my sister Tricia was graduating from UC Berkley in ’52. And we had pledged that when she did that, the two of us would then take an automobile trip around the country. And so I left. As a result of my announcing I was leaving, it motivated [Del] to make a pass at me–and motivated me to make a pass back. And we had sex together for the first time. And it wasn’t a commitment or anything like that. So this is what it was, which I had been wondering about feverishly for months. And my sister and I started out on this trip, and I realized that I was missing Del, so I would call her every now and then.

Del Martin: Collect.

PL: By the time we got to New Orleans, Tricia came down with polio. We stayed there about a month until she was well enough to return to the Bay Area. So we stayed there, and she was in the hospital and I was doing secretary work and calling Del even more, collect.

Anyhow, we got back [to San Francisco]. Del had said we should become partners. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that with anybody. About the time she was deciding she wanted to give up on the whole concept, I decided that yes, that was what we ought to do. She came down from Seattle. I found an apartment for us on Castro Street. It was not “the” Castro then. She cleared up everything in Seattle and came down. She arrived about 11 o’clock at night on Valentine’s Day 1952, which has always been our anniversary. So we lived in the apartment for a couple of years.

It was getting kind of fussy with our parents. We were not telling people we were lesbians, but we were not not telling them. We didn’t know anybody to tell except our parents. My sister said I shouldn’t say anything to Mother, because she didn’t have any problem with male homosexuals, but she sure didn’t like lesbians. I figured that was because she probably was one. [My sister] Tricia finally said at one point, “You know, the way things are going, you ought to move out of town. Remember my old boyfriend, so and so, from high school? He is gay, and he is down in Santa Barbara. Why don’t you go down to Santa Barbara?”

I told Del what she had said. Del? Go to Santa Barbara? If we’re going to move, let’s go to New York. It seemed like the logical thing to do. So we said, OK, we’ll do that. Before we can do that, we have to save some money, we have to get a new car, we have to do this and that.

Then the tension between us and the parents went away, because we were going to move. We bought a new car, a 1955 Nash Rambler station wagon, and we decided to look for another apartment. Instead, we bought a house. So we never moved to New York.

DM: We bought a house with a view.

Those were butch/femme times in lesbian culture. Did you identify as a butch/femme couple?
PL: Well, we did play that. DOB [Daughters of Bilitis] had gab-and-javas [gatherings], which turned out to be feminist consciousness-raising. At least two or three times a year we had one on butch/femme.

The topic that doesn’t die.
PL: I guess. So I was a femme, and Del was a butch, except that things that you think about that presumably butches would do, I do and she doesn’t. So it was always very kicky. It wasn’t such a big thing. It was for a lot of people, but it wasn’t a big thing for us.

How do you identify now?
PL: She’s still the butch.

DM: We’re partners.

How did Daughters of Bilitis start?
PL: We had been looking for some way to connect with lesbians, and we would go to the bars and see lesbians, and they would always seem to be connected to all of the other people. We didn’t feel like we could just go over and talk to them. So we finally found a couple of gay men that lived around the corner from us, and we got together.

Somehow or another, we ran into this woman, and we exchanged phone numbers. She’s the one that called us in September of 1955 and asked if we wanted to get involved in an organization, a secret society, a secret lesbian club with three other couples. And of course we said yes. It meant we immediately knew five new lesbians.

How did you get the word out?
DM: We didn’t.

PL: You mean after we got DOB together? Well, DOB hadn’t done anything. There was no way. We did it word-of-mouth. We discovered that there were two other organizations, Mattachine and ONE Incorporated.

Did y’all collaborate?
PL: Not exactly. They were mostly men, and we were only women, which they seemed to feel was a terrible thing. They didn’t have very many women members, and the ones that they did have usually moved over to us. And Mattachine women members were mostly aunts and moms and heterosexual women. ONE had more women. At one point, they had a woman editor of their magazine. But they were still, until the end, and probably still are, male-oriented.

So, getting the word out. I went down to L.A. to be on this talk program [during the ’60s]. I had spent hours on the phone with the producer of the thing, explaining to him that lesbians were women. I get down there, and the first words out of his mouth, on the TV program, were, “Now how are lesbians different from women?” Then there was the time I was supposed to be on the Jim Dunbar show in San Francisco, and they had had gay men on and that was fine. They didn’t seem to panic or anything. They got hysterical because they were going to do a lesbian show. It was cancelled because of a picket line.

When I got back to work, the woman on the switchboard said the phone had been ringing off the hook. I spent the day talking to women who really were very bored with their husbands, boyfriends, whatever, and where could they find a lesbian they could have sex with? I said, “If there had been a lesbian cathouse, they would have made a fortune.” It was really hilarious.

Could you tell me a little about your involvement with NOW [the National Organization for Women]?
PL: The way we got involved was in the Northern California chapter of NOW. There was something on the radio about it, so we wrote and said we would like to join. They sent information, and part of it said there was a couples’ membership–something that Betty [Friedan] had started because she wanted to get more husbands involved.

We were thinking, Well, we don’t want to go back into the closet around this NOW thing, so we filled that out and sent a note saying that we were a lesbian couple and therefore should get the cheaper rate. Then we got something back saying, “Wonderful, wonderful. I will send this on to the executive committee, and I bet there are more of you around who will join.” She sent that to the executive committee in New York, or wherever, and the couples’ membership was dropped rather rapidly.

So they cut the couples’ membership out of lesbophobia?

PL: We figured it was Betty [Friedan] who did that. And this was really so frustrating.

DM: We were at this national conference in Los Angeles. And there was this position paper [about lesbianism] on the agenda and they kept moving it. One of the things NOW did all through the years was give the lesbian caucus a little bitty room, and we had to always go get a bigger room, and it would cut our time down. Well, at this particular one [conference], the issue was on the agenda. When we got to Los Angeles, Betty was back in New York telling the New York Times that the issue of lesbianism was going to tear NOW apart. That was the headline.

So they kept moving the time of the paper because we needed a bigger room. Finally, we ended up in the grand ballroom. Where we had thought we were going to referee, it wasn’t that at all. Nobody was against it. They took the thing that the Los Angeles chapter had written. A heterosexual woman stood up and said, “Look, let’s just take this as it is and add the statement that therefore NOW agrees that the issue of lesbianism is a woman’s issue .”

PL: The thing that was amazing was that Muriel Fox came up and said that we should take out the part that said, “NOW has mis-treated its lesbian members over the years.” Everybody said, “We want to keep that.” Then it went to the general assembly, where everybody at the conference was going to vote on it. Everybody was, of course, waiting for Betty to show up and do her thing, and she didn’t. One of our heterosexual friends came up to Del and said, “Hang in there, Del. We’ve got the votes.” And it passed.

Let’s talk a little about marriage.

DM: In 1970, the Chronicle [San Francisco] ran an editorial saying, “Why shouldn’t we be able to get married?”

PL: Then, a heterosexual woman lawyer started a campaign to get the San Francisco bar association to endorse same-sex marriages, and they did. She took it to the state bar, and they did. John Burton, who was in the California assembly at that point, a very powerful politician in San Francisco, introduced a bill to allow same-sex couples to get married. There was no support at any point from the gay com-munity. We were busy with jobs. We were busy changing the sex laws.

Did you ever think you would see yourself get married?

DM: We never dreamed we’d live this long. Everybody’s seen the picture of us. We were getting responses from all over the world. You can’t just back off when things are happening that you wanted to happen all of your life.

PL: Well, we didn’t think about marriage. In the women’s move-ment, there was a big question about mar-riage, the whole concept of marriage. That’s where we were certainly coming from in the middle of the women’s movement–the patriarchal concept of marriage is not good to women, and so on and so forth. When we were asked to be the first couple, neither one of us questioned that that would be the place to be. I think it’s because there’s such a push to do it.

DM: Right now, there are so many books being written about same-sex marriage. There are books, there are movies, there are documentaries, there are albums of couples. It’s amazing.

If you could change anything about our community, what would you change?

PL: It depends on how you define community.

Any way you want.

PL: Gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans-sexuals, and intersexed. And everybody else. The questioning queers, allies.

DM: I can’t stand the word queer. My objection is that if you are going to use the word queer for all of it, you are putting us back in the closet. You’re not letting us be lesbians, bisexuals, and so on. We were fighting all these years so that we were included. It really bothers me that you then lose your identity as a lesbian.

PL: We fought long and hard to get lesbians included. Along about 1980 people began to put that in, gays and lesbians.

DM: Instead of just gay.

PL: We finally had the Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day parade. Then, we had phone calls from our gay brothers. “We don’t have any lesbians on our board. Could you send us a lesbian?”

DM: Since we’ve gotten past that, many lesbians have taken leadership positions.

How have you kept from burning out over 50 years?

PL: We didn’t know you could do that. Truly.

DM: Like we usually say, we just go with the times. Times change, different things happen. As far as we’re concerned, we’re still operating from where we started with the homophile community.

PL: Actually, they hadn’t invented burnout, early on. Really. So we didn’t know you could do that. We kept going–like the Energizer Bunny. But, actually we had sort of dropped out. We weren’t doing much of anything. Then we went and got married, and now we’re right back where we left off.

Is that OK with you?

PL: Well, we believe in this fight, so I guess it’s OK, although we may slow down.

What haven’t we gotten yet that you really want to get done?

PL: We haven’t gotten full protection, obviously. We’ve got a lot more rights than we ever had, but people are still in fear.

Any last words tonight?

DM: Coming out and telling your story is very important.

PL: It’s been an amazing 50 years.

Deb Murphy returns to OutSmart with this interview. She wrote “The Pause That Refreshes–NOT!” for our March 2001 issue.


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