Home of first lesbian couple to marry in San Francisco made a landmark

Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were at the forefront of campaigning for lesbian and gay rights since the 1950's.

Two older women marrying in front of a celebrant

Activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were together for more than 50 years when they made history as the first lesbian couple to be married in San Francisco back in 2004. Now the hilltop cottage where they shared their life is to be made a landmark.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last week to give the pair’s home landmark status. It is expected to become the first lesbian landmark in the US West according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

“The home they shared for more than half a century was the site of many community gatherings and has clear historic value that needs to be preserved and memorialised,” said Noe Valley Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who introduced the resolution and saw it through the Historic Preservation Commission. “I’m proud of this historic action to create the first local landmark focused on the history of the lesbian community.”

The couple bought the one-bedroom home together in 1955. At the time this was a bold move given the stigma surrounding LGBTQ+ people. It was then that they co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organisation in the country.

In the beginning, their little cottage acted as the headquarters for the organisation with the couple hosting meetings as well as social activities in their living room. They fought for equality for gays and lesbians in the workplace, housing, the medical establishment, the feminist movement and the institution of marriage. Phyllis and Del also both acted as the editor for The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian monthly in the US, and published a book called Lesbian/Woman in 1972.

The spouses first met in Seattle in 1950 when they were working at the same magazine and began dating in 1952 before moving to San Francisco together the following year.

Many years later, Lyon and Martin recalled how they learned to live together in 1953. “We really only had problems our first year together. Del would leave her shoes in the middle of the room, and I’d throw them out the window”, said Lyon, to which Martin responded, “You’d have an argument with me and try to storm out the door. I had to teach you to fight back.” 

They became San Francisco’s first married same-sex couple in 2004 after then Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the city clerk to begin providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. However, in a cruel blow, their marriage was voided by the California Supreme Court just months later as Newsom did not have the proper authority to do so.

“Del is 83 years-old and I am 79. After being together for more than 50 years, it is a terrible blow to have the rights and protections of marriage taken away from us. At our age, we do not have the luxury of time,” Phyllis said after the decision.

Thankfully they were able to remarry legally in their lifetime when California officially legalised same-sex marriage in 2008. No strangers to being pioneers, the couple were again the first ones to walk down the aisle in San Francisco in June of the same year. Just two months later Del passed away. In April of last year, Phyllis also died at the age of 95.

In the home where they spent more than 50 years together their love, activism and history will be immortalised. There are plans to install a plaque in their memory as a minimum and the new owner of the house supports landmarking and protecting the cottage.

Terry Beswick, executive director of the GLBT Historical Society who helped protect the house from demolition said: “Phyllis and Del affected so many lives, including my own, and I feel strongly that the house where they did it should stay in the community.”

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