8against8: Del & Phyllis

October 20, 2008  |  essays, miscellany

What a better place to start on the 8against8 activist week than to highlight the first lesbian couple to be wed in California after the state’s Supreme Court overturned the ban on same-sex marriage in May of 2008. In June, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were legally wed after being together for over fifty years.

UCLA’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy projected in June 2008 that about half of California’s more than 100,000 same-sex couples will wed during the next three years and 68,000 out-of-state couples will travel to California to exchange vows. (via Wikipedia)

Del and Phyllis met in 1952 and were founding members of the Daughters of Bilitis, the US’s first lesbian group, who also published a magazine called The Ladder (you can stop by the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn to see all the old issues of The Ladder). There’s a great video of Del & Phyllis speaking about the DOB on YouTube, please do check it out.

More information at their wikipedia page and also in the documentary film No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, which looks like it’s replayed on PBS on occasion. (It looks like the New York Public Library might have copies, but you can’t actually check them out. I’d really love to see this – if anyone knows how to get hold of a copy, please do let me know.)

Below is a video clip of their exchange of vows.

Del Martin is a bit of butch eye candy herself … there’s a sort of a sneer to her smile, isn’t there? I can’t quite place it but I can sense it. Del died in August 2008 in San Francisco, with her wife by her side. She was 87.

As a budding young activist and baby dyke, discovering the stories of Del and Phyllis were profoundly moving for me… I remember staring at their reproduced black & white photographs in lesbian history books and being profoundly grateful for all they had endured, incredibly sad for the bigotry they experienced, deeply moved by their perseverance and dedication, so relieved that I live in a better time – a culture that tolerates (if not occasionally celebrates) my gender identity, my sexual orientation, and even my history, where my particular subculture came from. There are so many scholars and activists out there doing work on the history of the queer activist movements in the US, and looking through some of Del and Phyllis’s stories always reminds me how recent so much of this history was made.

I know, I’m young, it’s true; I’m 29. I’ve been blessed to grow up in quite a gay-tolerant culture. I look at gay & lesbian activist history in the 50s and 60s and I see my own history, my own legacy, my own inheritance. I’m thrilled to have shoulders like Del and Phyllis to stand on, and to stand up for. I’m so, so glad that they were legally married before Del passed away, so glad they got to witness the beginnings of the legalization of gay marriage in this country.

This history isn’t over yet, though. This is a living history, history with a pulse and breath, with driving activism forces behind it. We are changing things – we already have.

8 Against 8 – 8 bloggers, 8 days, $8,000 – vote NO on Proposition 8

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5 Comments


  1. We owe these women so much! I'm glad they both got to live their dream before Del passed on.

  2. Sinclair,

    That was an incredibly moving kick off…I saw the photos of their wedding, but never the video. It made me tear up to think that they waited so long for that moment, such a celebration to be followed so soon after by such a loss. Their relationship is an example of love and committment that should be celebrated by EVERYONE.

    jen.

    [I SO love that moment when Del starts looking all impatient as the Mayor is slowly, slowly reciting the vows. It's as if she's thinking, "DUH, of course I do, get on with it, I don't have all day!" which shows this sliver of her sense of humor, cracks me up, and brings tears to my eyes at the reality of it all – the vows are such a given she barely even has to listen to them, and she's aging so rapidly, we now know she only had a month or so left. I can't imagine being with the same person for more than fifty years, they were so lucky and lovely. I wish I'd been able to meet Del. – ss]

  3. after watching that.. gee thanks, i'm gonna cry all over again!

    who can say no to this?

    i wasn't there and i could feel all the love in the room.

    who can say no to love?

  4. Hi Sinclair,

    I do love it when my regular blog reading and my job come together! I work for Frameline, the non-profit film distributor that releases "No Secret Anymore." I know the New York Public Library video archives are in the process of moving, so I'm not sure about the availability of the film right now.

    That said, anyone interested in requesting the film from their public library (it's not out on home video) can do so by putting in a materials request with a librarian. And you can either hand them that link (http://cart.frameline.org/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=T578) or send them in my direction (tkendall@frameline.org). Just a word to the wise, a lot of libraries ask you to include your name with your request, so here's your chance to be out and proud and whatnot to make sure everyone in your neighborhood has access to good, useful materials on queers.

    And if you still can't get enough of Phyllis and Del's sass, here's another clip of them: http://www.vimeo.com/1668004

    Thanks for all your work on Prop 8! Happy to contribute to the theory, even though I'll be back for the smut…

    Trista

    [Trista – Thanks! Good to know about the materials request. I'll see if I can't get my hands on it through the NYPL. I see it listed in the system but can't quite figure out where it is or how to get it, will have to research. I'd love to see more of their story. – ss]

  5. When writing a short biography paper on Del Martin for class, I contacted some SF libraries to clarify her work on early anti-discrimination legislation. I was blown away by how seriously they took my request and how happy they were to help. Delving into the background of her and Phyllis's life and work together is just amazing.

    Honestly reading about their work has inspired me so much, and given me so much more sense of purpose for what to do with my life. I've been harassing everyone I know about prop 8. Best of luck!

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