Lesbian activist Phyllis Lyon passes away aged 95

Phyllis Lyon and her late wife Del Martin were one of the first same-sex couples to get married in the state of California.

Phyllis Lyon
Image: Ryan Anson/AFP/Getty Images

Phyllis Lyon, the pioneering lesbian activist, passed away yesterday from natural causes at the age of 95. Lyon and her late partner Del Martin were among some of the first same-sex couples to be wed in California.

The news was shared by her friend, Kate Kendell. Kendell said Lyon lived her life with joy and wonder and acted as a mentor for many at a time when the LGBT+ community seemed much smaller.

“Before cell phones they always had their phone number listed in the phone book in case any young or terrified LGBT+ person needed help or support,” she said. “And they fielded dozens of calls over the years.”

Phyllis Lyon was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1924, and grew up in Sacramento, California. She would graduate from the University of California, Berkeley. Lyon was a journalist and met Martin while working for a magazine in Seattle. Together, they moved to San Francisco in 1953.

It was only three years later they would began publishing The Ladder, a monthly magazine with politics, poetry and fiction for a lesbian audience. They stopped publishing in 1972, the same year they released their book, Lesbian/Woman.

The two women were first wed in the office of the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom. At the time, Newsom was newly elected, and he wanted to challenge California’s laws and issue marriage licences to same-sex couples.

According to a 2008 Associated Press story, the couple exchanged vows before a small group of friends and city clerk officials.

“Of course, nobody down there knew, so we were left to be by ourselves like we wanted to be,” Martin said. “Then we came home.”

“And watched TV,” Lyon added.

The US Supreme Court voided those unions before the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was overturned in 2008. The couple then wed again and were some of the first in the state to do so. Unfortunately, Del Martin died only a few weeks after the wedding.

“I am devastated to lose Del, but I take some solace in knowing we were able to enjoy the ultimate rite of love and commitment before she passed,” Lyon said at the time.

Family and friends are planning a celebration of her life.

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