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Lambda Legal Mourns the Loss of Phyllis Lyon, LGBTQ Civil Rights Hero

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April 9, 2020
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Del Martin (left) and Phyllis Lyon (right)

LGBTQ civil rights leader Phyllis Lyon, who with her partner Del Martin made international headlines in June 2008 when they became the first same-sex couple to legally marry in California, died today in San Francisco. She was 95. Del Martin died in 2008, shortly after their second wedding.

In 2004, after their first marriage was voided by the California Supreme Court, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the American Civil Liberties Union represented Lyon and Martin as plaintiffs in the California marriage lawsuit that succeeded in establishing the right for same-sex couples to marry in May, 2008. On June 16, 2008, Lyon and Martin became the first same-sex couple to marry legally in California as then–San Francisco Mayor and now California Governor Gavin Newsom presided over their ceremony. 

Martin and Lyon were used to being pioneers: in 1955, they helped found the nation's first lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). “The courage, strength, and vision that Phyllis and Del embodied practically boggles the mind,” said Kevin Jennings, Lambda Legal’s CEO. “In an era when same-sex relationships were criminalized, homosexuality was deemed a mental illness, and LGBTQ people were banned from employment in the government, Phyllis and Del bravely stepped forward to lead the fight for equality. The debt that subsequent generations owe them is beyond measure.”

Martin and Lyon continued their activism throughout their lives. They were active in the National Organization of Women (NOW), and Martin was the first open lesbian to be elected to NOW's board. Besides working tirelessly for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality, the two have been strong advocates against domestic violence, for access to affordable healthcare, and for the elderly,

“For decades, Phyllis and Del showed us what love and courage look like," said Jenny Pizer, Lambda Legal Director of Law and Policy and co-counsel for plaintiffs in the California Marriage Cases. "Their proud, matter-of-fact book, Lesbian/Woman, opened eyes in 1972 and dispelled myths about us just as the Women’s movement was gaining influence nationally. Phyllis was among our most effective leaders at insisting that that movement must include lesbian and bisexual women, too. For me personally, she was an inspiration. She embodied a no-nonsense commitment to all women’s lives and health, to unapologetic feminism, and to LGBTQ liberation and equality. It was the honor of a lifetime to capture her voice and amplify it in our long, successful fight for the freedom to marry.”