The home where pioneering LGBTQ and civil rights activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin lived for more than five decades may become a local historic landmark, as the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has taken the first step towards giving it that designation. The two women may be best known as the first same-sex couple to marry legally in San Francisco, but the legacy of these mothers of our movement is bigger than that.
The home, where Martin and Lyon lived together from 1955 until Martin’s death in 2008, and where Lyon remained until her death, is a 750-square-foot cottage on a mostly undeveloped double lot in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. The property sold for $2.25 million this September. The sale caught the attention of Shayne Watson, a historian who co-wrote San Francisco’s LGBTQ Historic Context Statement in 2016. “I was alarmed when I saw an article about the sale touting how profitable it would be to redevelop the property,” said Watson in a press statement. “The Lyon-Martin house is not only one of the most significant queer sites in the city, but a place of international importance—truly a birthplace of LGBTQ-rights movements worldwide.”
“The home of Lesbian icons and human rights leaders Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin in San Francisco is vital to LGBTQ as well as San Francisco and American history,” said Dr. Marcia Gallo, professor emerita at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movements. “From the mid-1950s to 2020, with its large open living room windows looking out on the city they loved so dearly, the Lyon Martin House not only sheltered them and their family and friends but also welcomed activists, journalists, politicians and other change-makers throughout the nation and the world.”
The neighborhood, however, has seen much recent redevelopment, with many older homes torn down to be replaced by new ones. Watson therefore brought together historians, friends and former caregivers of Lyon and Martin, and members of the broader queer community to establish Friends of the Lyon-Martin House in partnership with the GLBT Historical Society. After meeting with the group, Mandelman introduced a resolution in late September nominating the home as a historic landmark. On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve it. This begins a process in which the City’s Planning Department and Historic Preservation Commission has 90 days to issue a recommendation to the Board, which would then take final action to designate the landmark. That status would mean that future development and uses of the property would be subject to review by the Historic Preservation Commission.
In 1955, Martin and Lyon were among the eight founders of Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first political lesbian rights organization in the U.S. In 1956, the organization held the first known discussion groups on lesbian motherhood. The two worked tirelessly for decades on LGBTQ equality, women’s rights, stopping violence against women, healthcare access, advocacy for seniors, and much more. Martin founded or co-founded numerous other women’s and LGBT organizations, including the Lesbian Mother’s Union, the San Francisco Women’s Centers, the Bay Area Women’s Coalition, and the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in San Francisco. She and Lyon were the first lesbians to insist on joining the National Organization for Women (NOW) with a “couples’ membership rate” and Martin was the first out lesbian on its board of directors. Lesbian/Woman, the book they co-authored in 1972, was a groundbreaking portrayal of lesbian lives.
In 2004, Martin and Lyon were the first same-sex couple to be married by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. They were plaintiffs in the case that won marriage equality for same-sex couples throughout California in 2008. Martin died in 2008, shortly after their legal marriage; Lyon died this past April. They are survived by a daughter, two grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Terry Beswick, executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, says on the Friends of the Lyon-Martin House website, “I can see it in the future being a destination as an archival site for GLBTQ rights and women’s rights here in San Francisco.”
Perhaps they’ll also have a gift shop with books by and about the couple and the LGBTQ equality movement. If so, it should include Gayle Pitman’s picture book When You Look Out the Window (Magination Press), which shows how the two women fell in love, bought a house, and worked to transform their community.
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