Remembering pioneering lesbian activist Phyllis Lyon

In this difficult period, not all losses are linked to COVID-19 and we wanted to take a moment to remember activist Phyllis Lyon [1924-2020] who died of natural causes on April 9th at 95 years old. Her passing and tremendous contribution to the LGBT community should not be obscured by the current crisis.

“The saying that we stand on the shoulders of giants, is never [truer] when talking about being an activist and learning from Phyllis and Del, who founded the […] Daughters of Bilitis. Two of the most amazing women I’ve ever had the honor to meet.” — Rea Carey, Executive Director, National LGBTQ Task Force in The Advocate’s obituary for Phyllis on April 9th

The Daughters of Bilitis, also called the DOB or the Daughters which she co-founded with her partner Del Martin (the organization was started by four lesbian couples), was the first lesbian civil and political rights organization formed in 1955. The group was conceived as a social alternative to lesbian bars, which like their male counterparts were subject to raids and police harassment at the time. DOB gradually started focusing on helping women come out, educating its members about gay history, research, and the promotion of change in penal codes. Despite being a small and discreet – almost secretive – organization, the Daughters of Bilitis are widely viewed as a crucial part of the pre-Stonewall LGBT rights movement.

Remembering pioneering lesbian activist Phyllis Lyon 1

Del and Phyllis cutting their wedding cake in 2008.

Phyllis’ partner Del Martin [1921–2008] died at 87 years old with Phyllis her side more than a decade ago. That same year they had been the first gay couple to legally exchange vows in San Francisco. As the Times points out in its obituary: “The mauve and turquoise-blue suits that the couple wore to their weddings are in the permanent collection of The GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.” They were actually plaintiffs in the lawsuit which won California couples the right to marry that year.

It takes courage to stand up to society and say, “I am right, and you are wrong” and pioneers like Phyllis should never be forgotten – we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. It is difficult to imagine today how much courage and vision it took for women like Phyllis to stand tall and proud in the 1950s, but it is a mental exercise we should practice daily as we are called in turn to advance the cause.

Many of our community elders have died in recent weeks (see below) which is particularly hard for us when the AIDS crisis already decimated an entire generation of gay, queer, and trans folks. Our remaining elders are a precious source of leadership, knowledge, and for our collective memory. [Read my March 11 post: Coronavirus: ageism is NEVER a good look but it is a terrible one for LGBT people].

Rest in peace Phyllis, we honor your memory and love to think you are now reunited with Del.

Read The New York Times obituary for Phyllis Lyon

Watch this 1987 interview of Phyllis and Del

Read the 2004 dissertation: Different daughters: The Daughters of Bilitis and the roots of lesbian and women’s liberation, 1955–1970 by Marcia Gallo

Phyllis died of natural causes but the LGBT+ community is also disproportionately affected by COVID-19 globally. You can also read previous obituaries of leading NYC LGBT lives lost to the pandemic on the following links: