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Before Stonewall: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon

Once again, my darlings, it is storytime!

In this series, we are looking at the activists who came before Stonewall because LGBTQ rights did not just happen overnight!

Today, we celebrate the lives, the work and the love of activists Del Martin (1921-2008) and Phyllis Lyon (1924-2022). If you had told Del and Phyllis that they could spend their lives together when they met in 1950, they probably would not have believed you. It is unbelievable that they would be married 58 years later, Del at 87 and Phyllis at 84. They were the first same-sex couple to be married in San Francisco when same-sex marriage was finally legalised in California in 2008.

How it started

Their love story began when Del started her first day at Pacific Builder and Engineer in Seattle in 1950. Phyllis immediately noticed Del. She looked dapper in her green gabardine suit, open-toed pumps and a briefcase (gotta love a woman in a suit). After being friends for a while, they eventually got together in 1952 and moved into an apartment in the Castro district in San Francisco in 1953.

The Daughters of Brilitis

Meeting other lesbians in the 1950s was challenging and very risky. The only option was the bar scene, where bars were regularly raided and arrests were made. Del and Phyllis felt isolated and wanted to meet other lesbians to make friends with. In 1955, a lesbian friend, Rose Bamberger, invited them to a secret social club with five others. Those eight women formed the first lesbian organisation in the United States: The Daughters of Brilitis (DOB). The group named themselves after a nineteenth-century erotic lesbian poem called 'The Songs of Bilitis' (Written by Pierre Louÿs). This was done so that they could claim that they were running a poetry group if any of their meetings were raided. The original members were Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon, Rosalie Bamberger, Rosemary Sliepen, Noni Frey, Marcia Foster and Mary (surname could not be found).

What began as a secret social club as an alternative to a frequently raided bar scene grew to become a lesbian rights organisation, with localised groups across the country. Members of the DOB aimed to recruit members into their ranks while keeping their mission a secret. The group used pins to identify fellow members.

Let's go, journalists!

The group began publishing a magazine called 'The Ladder' in 1956, the first nationally distributed lesbian periodical in the United States. The Ladder addressed the lack of information and understanding of female homosexuality. They conducted surveys, and the DOB were among the first groups to gather statistics on LGBTQ people. They did this when the government was actively hunting down homosexuals for their 'crimes'. At one point, the DOB was being investigated by both the FBI and the CIA. They took significant risks in publishing their work, and they worked tremendously hard to ensure the safety of their readers. Phyllis Lyon and the other writers in the group all had pen names to shield their identities. Lyon first wrote under the name Anne Ferguson. However, by the time the fourth issue was published, Phyllis boldly chose 'coming out' to her readers and announced her true identity! She believed in a world where homosexuals could walk around freely, and she came out to prove it (and we love her for it).

Out and Proud

In 1962, the DOB held its second national convention in Los Angeles. This convention is notable for being broadcast on television, among the first broadcasts to cover LGBTQ civil rights (they came a long way over a short period). Despite having a distinct identity as an advocacy group, the DOB co-hosted events with other LGBTQ groups. On the 1st of January 1965, the DOB held a mutual aid fundraising ball at California Hall. When over 600 people attended, they were confronted with officers from the San Francisco police department. Four lawyers representing the DOB and other advocates were arrested for supporting the participant's rights to attend the ball. When news of the story broke, there was a public condemnation of the arrests, leading 25 of the most prominent lawyers in San Francisco to join the defence team of the four lawyers! This marked a huge turning point for Gay rights on the West Coast.

While the DOB played a significant role in the LGBTQ movement, they also made waves in the mid-1960s fighting for women's rights. As the DOB was a woman's organisation at its heart, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon joined the National Organisation for Women and urged readers of The Ladder to join.


It is incredible to see how much things have changed for Del and Phyllis throughout their life together, from meeting in secrecy to finally having their relationship acknowledged in full public view. It just goes to show how the ideas and actions of a small group of people can grow and inspire significant changes for many. This is why we write, this is why we meet because this is how things change for the better. We ultimately have the power to be the change in the world we want to see. What things would you like to change? Comment down below, and who knows, you might start something new!


Bullough, V.L. (2002). Before Stonewall: activists for gay and lesbian rights in historical context. New York: Harrington Park Press.

The Incredible Story of Lesbian Activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon

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