Skip to main content

Lyon, Phyllis and Del Martin

LYON, Phyllis and Del MARTIN

LYON, Phyllis (b. 10 November 1924), and Del MARTIN (b. 5 May 1921), activists, feminists.

In 1955 Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were part of a small group of women in San Francisco who started the first known national lesbian organization in the United States, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). They provided daily leadership to the DOB through its first decade of existence and were identified with it throughout its more than twenty-year history. Lyon and Martin were responsible for insisting that the lesbian experience be given particular attention within the homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Later they also helped shape the ideas and actions of the feminist, family violence, sex education, and pro-aging movements of the late twentieth century, while playing significant roles in San Francisco electoral politics.

Lyon was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her family moved a good deal during her youth and she attended schools in three different parts of California. She majored in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1940s and was on the staff of the school's newspaper, the Daily Californian. In 1946, after several years as a reporter in California, she took a position in Seattle, Washington, as associate editor with Pacific Builder and Engineer magazine. It was here that she met Martin.

Martin grew up in San Francisco and also attended Berkeley and wrote for the Daily Californian. After transferring to San Francisco State University, she became managing editor of its newspaper, the Golden Gator. In 1940, she married a college classmate and two years later gave birth to her daughter Kendra. After her divorce, Martin worked at odd jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area. She worked as a reporter for Pacific Builder in San Francisco before accepting a job in Seattle as editor of Daily Construction Reports, the sister publication to Pacific Builder and Engineer, in 1949. She and Lyon became close friends and, after three years, lovers.

When Lyon returned to San Francisco to celebrate her sister's graduation from Berkeley with an automobile tour of the United States, Martin followed, and on Valentine's Day 1953 they set up their first home and their new lives together. They immediately opened a joint bank account and established themselves as a couple. But they had a difficult time finding other lesbians to socialize with and were too shy to approach women in the lesbian bars in San Francisco. Introduced by a mutual friend to Noni Frey, they attended a meeting held in September 1955 to discuss forming a secret lesbian social club. "They found us," Martin remembers. "We didn't get involved to fight for any causes. We just wanted to meet lesbians" (interview with author, September 1997, San Francisco). The new group soon split, however, over the club's purpose, with several of the women wanting it to be strictly social and a few others, notably Lyon and Martin, wanting that, and more. Half of the original eight members left the group.

But they had laid an organizational foundation in the first year, and Lyon and Martin were determined to keep the new group, called the Daughters of Bilitis, going. Under Martin's leadership as president (with Lyon as secretary)

the DOB was redirected toward social activism as well as social activities. Education and exploration were key components of their new programs and a series of private discussions and public meetings were held. In 1956, the members agreed that the best way to publicize their efforts was through a newsletter. That year the first ongoing lesbian publication was created, and the Ladder proved to be a vital voice for the growing gay and lesbian movement until 1972. Lyon—initially writing as "Ann Ferguson," until the fourth issue, when she dropped the pseudonym—was its first editor. She served in that position until July 1960, when Martin assumed the responsibility for the next three years.

Both women have been outspoken advocates and passionate proselytizers for lesbian issues, as well as savvy activists. In addition to their work with the DOB, Lyon and Martin saw the potential for positive social change in working with diverse groups of people in San Francisco and throughout the country. They were among the founders of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, a groundbreaking San Francisco coalition of clergy and homophile activists, in 1964. They helped launch Citizens Alert, an organization of civil rights and minority groups dealing with police brutality in 1965. In 1968, they became the first lesbians to join the National Organization for Women as a couple and became active leaders of the Northern California chapter, helping pass national pro-lesbian rights policies at a time when the "Lavender Menace" was seen as a threat by conservative forces within the women's movement.

The publication of their book Lesbian/Woman in 1972 catapulted Lyon and Martin to national attention, and they subsequently appeared throughout the country on college campuses, radio, and television shows (including the Phil Donahue show). In San Francisco, they helped create the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club in 1972. Martin served on the city's Commission on the Status of Women for three years and was president from 1976–1977. Lyon was on the Human Rights Commission for almost twelve years, and chaired it from 1982–1983. From the mid-1960s on, Lyon was actively involved in human sexuality education, working with the National Sex Forum to produce pro-sex booklets and films and helping to establish the International Museum of Erotic Art. She was one of the founders of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, a graduate school. Martin published Battered Wives in 1976, one of the first books about violence against women. She became a spokesperson for the nascent battered women's shelter and family violence prevention movements. Martin and Lyon had also became increasingly active in local and national Democratic Party electoral campaigns and continue to urge women's participation in the world of politics.

Their activism continues in the early twentieth century. As of 2003, they devote their energies to issues of aging and are members of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change. Lyon and Martin attended the 1995 White House Conference on Aging to represent older lesbians and gay men, and they are organizing for the 2005 White House Conference on Aging. They are determined that a large and vocal delegation of old LGBT people be part of it.

To celebrate their fiftieth anniversary in 2003, the couple were honored in San Francisco at the premiere of the film No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. This documentary by filmmaker Joan E. Biren (JEB) shows the combined century of activism these two women have contributed to so many movements for equality and justice.


Abbott, Sydney, and Barbara Love. Sappho Was a Right-On Woman. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.

Bullough, Vern, ed. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. New York: Haworth Press, 2002.

Cain, Paul . Leading the Parade: Conversations with America's Most Influential Lesbians and Gay Men. New York: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

D'Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Martin, Del, and Phyllis Lyon. Lesbian/Woman. San Francisco: Gilde Publications, 1972; rev. ed., Volcano, Calif.: Volcano Press, 1991.

Miller, Neil. Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. New York: Random House, 1995.

Mixner, David, and Dennis Bailey. Brave Journeys: Profiles in Gay and Lesbian Courage. New York: Bantam Books, 2000.

Tobin, Kay, and Randy Wicker. The Gay Crusaders. New York: Paperback Library, 1972.

Marcia M. Gallo

see alsodaughters of bilitis; homophile movement; homophile press; ladder; lesbian feminism.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lyon, Phyllis and Del Martin." Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. . 19 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Lyon, Phyllis and Del Martin." Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. . (January 19, 2019).

"Lyon, Phyllis and Del Martin." Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. . Retrieved January 19, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.