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'Fresh Air' Remembers LGBTQ Pioneer Phyllis Lyon


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to remember one of the mothers of the gay rights movement, Phyllis Lyon. She died Thursday at the age of 95. In 1955, Lyon and Del Martin co-founded the first national lesbian group in the country, the Daughters of Bilitis. It was created as an alternative to the gay bar scene but developed into an activist group with a mission of helping lesbians discover their potential and find their place in society. The group disbanded in the '70s, but Lyon and Martin remained outspoken advocates of gay rights.

Lyon and Martin had already been a couple for 55 years when they became the first gay couple to legally marry in the state of California in 2008. They'd actually gotten married four years earlier, but the California Supreme Court invalidated their marriage a month later. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom presided over both weddings. Soon after the second wedding, Del Martin died.

We're going to listen to the interview I recorded with Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin in 1992 after a new 20th anniversary edition was published of their book "Lesbian/Woman." I asked them if they knew there was such a thing as a lesbian when they started being attracted to women. Del Martin spoke first.





MARTIN: No. Sexuality was not talked about in those days and let alone homosexuality.

LYON: Yeah, we're talking way back in the '30s and '40s and '50s. And I didn't really find out about lesbians until I met Del, actually.

GROSS: And what year was that?

LYON: That was in...

MARTIN: 1949.

LYON: 1949, right. And I knew vaguely that there were such things as male homosexuals, but that was about it. But when I look back, I know that I was always fascinated with women. I just didn't have a clue as to what to do about that.

GROSS: Where did you each find out more about other lesbians, about the fact that you weren't alone? Did you turn to books? Did you turn to other people?

LYON: Well, there really weren't any books except, you know, unless you went to the - first, you had to know the word homosexual or lesbian in order to look anything up.

MARTIN: And mostly, you know, it just told you how sick you were. I think the first book that I read that helped me out was Radclyffe Hall's book.

LYON: "The Well Of Loneliness," yeah.

GROSS: You both read that?

LYON: No, I didn't. Somehow or other, I missed that. So that I was still - I mean, I was through college and working before I found out about lesbians. And that was only because as I - it was about 1949 that Del and I and another woman we worked with were having drinks at the Press Club in Seattle after work, and somehow or other, the subject came up, and Del said she was a lesbian. And I was fascinated because I never met one before, I thought (laughter). The first thing I did when I got home was call everybody I knew and tell them.

GROSS: Tell them about Del?

LYON: Yeah. I didn't know that that was a bad thing. Fortunately, it had no repercussions to speak of (laughter).

MARTIN: Yeah, talk about outing.

LYON: Talk about naivete.


GROSS: So, Phyllis, did you get the feeling right away that, well, you know, maybe you were, too? Did that strike you?

LYON: Not right at the moment. I - we had already become pretty close friends, Del and I. And then, of course, I was curious. But one of the things I had discerned about myself was that, in my relationships with men, what I was doing was, in essence, sort of chasing after the ones I was interested in, and then when I caught them, as it were, then I became disinterested. And I was kind of afraid that the same thing would happen if I chased after Del, so I didn't do anything for quite a while, as a matter of fact.

MARTIN: Then she was going to leave town and...

LYON: For good.

MARTIN: And so it was then or never.


GROSS: Who made the first move?

MARTIN: I did. But as Phyllis says, I made a pass, and she completed it.


LYON: She sort of made a half pass.

GROSS: How did you both meet?

MARTIN: On the job. We were working for trade publications in Seattle.

GROSS: You - so you knew each other from working together.

LYON: Yeah. Right. Well, it was - I was working in Seattle before. And then the boss told us all that he had this gay divorcee coming from San Francisco.

MARTIN: He didn't know how gay.


GROSS: Right.

LYON: And so I - of course, I was fascinated because I had lived in San - I went to UC Berkeley, and I had lived partially in San Francisco, and it was great to know somebody from down there was coming up.

GROSS: Del, you had already been married. What happened to end the marriage?

MARTIN: I fell in love with the woman next door. And, you know, my feelings were really awakened by then, and I felt I needed to do something about it.

GROSS: When you started being a couple, a lot of lesbian relationships were in the kind of butch-femme mode. Was your relationship that way, too, early on?

LYON: It was sort of, yeah. I think that it didn't really stay that way very long, although to all intents and purposes, we were still a butch-femme couple in public. Since Del had decided - when I met her, had decided she was a butch, I didn't have much of an option. So...


LYON: So I became a femme. I've often thought I would have made a really good butch.


LYON: And besides which I - you know, I did all of the butch kind of things, if you will. I mean, I drive and Del doesn't. And I can drive a nail and she can't. And, you know, stuff like that. But we conformed to what the going thing was outside the home, but not - certainly didn't do it when we were at home.

MARTIN: Yeah, I was a sissy butch.

LYON: Yeah.


GROSS: So there was pressure on you. You felt that, like, from what you knew about lesbian couples, this is the way it had to be; this is the way it was supposed to be - butch and femme.

LYON: That's right, yeah. I mean, that's how everybody was doing it because, at that point in time, nobody - the only model anybody had was mom and dad, and so everybody was kind of following that.

MARTIN: And when we first got together, Phyllis would get up and make me breakfast, which I didn't like to eat in those days.

LYON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But that didn't last very long.

LYON: But that's what my mother had always done, right? She had always gotten up and gotten Dad's breakfast. So I thought, well, this is what you have to do. But as Del said, it didn't last very long.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1992 interview with Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who co-founded the first national lesbian group in the U.S., the Daughters of Bilitis. Lyon died Thursday at the age of 95. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering LGBTQ activist Phyllis Lyon. She died Thursday at the age of 95. In 1955, Lyon and Del Martin co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian group in the U.S. They were married in 2008 after being a couple since 1953. Martin died soon after the wedding. Let's get back to my 1992 interview with Lyon and Martin.


GROSS: You met in 1949. In 1955, you co-founded Daughters of Bilitis. Why did you feel you wanted to start some kind of organization? And what did you have in mind when you started it? What did you want it to be? What did you need it to be?

MARTIN: Well, it wasn't our idea. But we had met a lesbian through a couple of gay men that lived around the corner from us. And she called us one morning, Saturday morning, and said, how would you like to join with us in a social club for lesbians? And we were just delighted because we didn't know any, and we were so starved for, you know, socializing with other lesbians that we jumped at the chance. So that - what Daughters of Bilitis started out to be was a very secret lesbian social club.

GROSS: Where did the name come from, Daughters of Bilitis?

MARTIN: From "The Songs Of Bilitis" by Pierre Louys, which is a long lesbian narrative poem.

GROSS: It's a poem you knew?

MARTIN: Well, the lesbian who invited us to join the club had read the book, and she offered that as a suggestion for the name of the...

LYON: She thought that lesbians would know what Bilitis meant, but nobody else would. I don't think that was true because I don't think most lesbians knew about "The Songs Of Bilitis." However, it worked out as a name.

MARTIN: It was supposed to be a secret, and we have spent many, many years now trying to explain the name.


GROSS: So I guess it worked pretty well. You know, some people, when they hear the name, think it sounds like a disease - Bilitis.

LYON: Well, that's why we pronounced it Bilitis...

MARTIN: Now, Terry...

GROSS: Instead of Bilitis, like phlebitis?

LYON: ...Instead of Bilitis because we were - we didn't want it to sound like a disease. And that was at the time, you know, when Eisenhower ileitis.


LYON: And so we were, no, no, it's got to be Bilitis so it doesn't sound like an illness.

GROSS: So you were trying to keep the organization, you know, very secret to protect the members. Were there ways that lesbians could let other lesbians know who they were, like little cues lesbians could give each other through the way they dressed or wore their hair or whatever?

MARTIN: Well, I think that's probably why so many lesbians dressed pretty butchy (ph) - to let others know that here's a possibility.

GROSS: Did you go to the bars at all before or after you co-founded Daughters of Bilitis?

LYON: Oh, yeah (laughter).

GROSS: What was the bar scene like then?

LYON: Well, what was it like? It was - for many lesbians, it was the only outlet. It was the only place they had to go where they could be themselves. It was the only place they knew to go to meet other lesbians for sure, you know, without being - you know, perhaps making a costly mistake. And it's true there was a lot of drinking, which is what goes on in bars (laughter). But it was the only place. It was the only...

MARTIN: And it was a risky place...

LYON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Because the - periodically, there would be police raids. And one of the things that we worked through on that one was during the Daughters of Bilitis, when we started to have public discussion forums...

LYON: Discussion meetings.

MARTIN: Discussion meetings. And we got attorneys to come and talk to us and tell us our rights. And what we found when a bar raid took place, that most everybody pleaded guilty to it and a plea of disturbing the peace or visiting a house of ill repute or whatever - to get out of it and pay a fine. But in actuality, what they were pleading guilty to was being gay because they hadn't done anything that was illegal in these places; they were just there.

So when we found an attorney who said, just plead nolo contendere - so you were there. And then when a police officer was asked, you know, what we did or - in the bars, all they could say was they just rounded us all up, and there was nothing that the court could do but let us go. When I say us, I'm talking about lesbians in general. Phyllis and I never got caught up in a raid. We missed one by a day and another by a week.

LYON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But we didn't get caught up. But we did find legal help for those who did.

GROSS: When you started Daughters of Bilitis, there was a gay men's counterpart at the time, the Mattachine Society. How did the two groups get along?

MARTIN: Well, the Mattachine Society was primarily gay males. And it was open to women, you know, to lesbians, and - but they had very few. And it was so male-oriented. However, they were helpful to us. At one point, they let us share an office, a very tiny one, until we could get, you know, ourselves in gear and find our own quarters.

GROSS: What were the issues that you felt the two groups had in common and the issues in which you diverted from each other?

LYON: I think basically what we had in common was the fact that we were both homosexual, and therefore, we were illegal, immoral and sick. Other than that, the lesbians' concerns were more on civil concerns, not so much criminal concerns, whereas gay men were always getting into difficulties around public restrooms in and cruising in public places and so on. Lesbians were more concerned about bringing up their children if they had children, about how to keep their household together, how to buy a house together if that was possible and things like that. You know, it was typical differences between men and women, really. And Mattachine was going before Daughters of Bilitis, but we didn't know about it until after DOB got started. But the men were very chauvinistic for the most part.

GROSS: How so?

MARTIN: Because they were men.

LYON: Yeah (laughter).

MARTIN: Anybody who thinks that gay men are not masculine in the sense of being very righteous and it's their baby - forget it. As far as the lesbians are concerned, they could join. They could be receptionists or typists or - but never really a part of it.

GROSS: But this was before feminism, so, I mean, not only...

LYON: Right.

MARTIN: Right.

GROSS: Not only was gay rights in its very formative stages. There really wasn't a strong women's rights movement at the time, either. So you didn't have a word - feminism - to describe your feelings of the men being chauvinistic. So did you have a context to put that in?

MARTIN: Well, no. We didn't know that much about feminism, but we did write articles about discrimination against women in the early days.

LYON: We certainly - lesbians were aware that that they needed to work because nobody was going to come along and support them. And that - and we were also aware that we didn't get paid the same money that men did. We didn't quite know what we could do about that.

MARTIN: As a matter of fact, in the jobs where we met, we received titles rather than raises.

LYON: Yeah.

GROSS: Let me jump ahead a little bit. You were active in the formation of the gay rights movement in the late '60s and early '70s, when the gay rights movement really expanded. Were there things that you felt really involved with and then issues that you felt kind of left out of for generational reasons, you know, I mean, because you'd come up - you come of age during a more repressive era?

LYON: Well, but we never - we had never left, Terry. I mean, we had never quit...

GROSS: Right.

LYON: ...Being involved with the movement. And we had also become involved with the women's movement. As soon as NOW got started, we got involved with NOW. And so I don't know that we ever felt as if we were left out. I think that when "Lesbian/Woman" came out in 1972, we thought that maybe we would have problems when we went around to university campuses and so on to talk about it, that they might think we were a couple of old fuddy-duddies and, you know - and trash us, as it were. But that didn't happen because we found that no matter how radical people were becoming and so on, they still had these basic questions and basic problems like how do you tell your parents that you're gay and what do you do about coming out in school and so on.

GROSS: Well, I wish you good health and good luck, and I thank you very much for talking with us.

LYON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin recorded in 1992. Phyllis Lyon died Thursday at the age of 95. After we take a short break, our film critic Justin Chang will recommend some movies to stream at home. This is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.