Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lesbian couple of 55 years ready to 'I do' it - San Jose Mercury News

Lesbian couple of 55 years ready to 'I do' it - San Jose Mercury News: "g"

Lesbian couple of 55 years ready to 'I do' it
By LISA LEFF Associated Press Writer
Article Launched: 06/15/2008 04:51:23 PM PDT

SAN FRANCISCO—When Phyllis Lyon met Del Martin, a woman who wore slacks instead of a skirt attracted stares, if not doubts about her sexuality.
Martin carried a briefcase anyway.

In 1950, "gay" was a code word members of an all but invisible society used to find each other outside the pages of lurid pulp fiction. A real lesbian could get arrested, fired and committed for electroshock treatment if caught dancing with another woman at a bar.

Lyon and Martin fell in love anyway.

On Monday, more than 55 years after they set up house together and pronounced themselves as committed as two people could be, they plan to become one of the first same-sex couples to legally exchange marriage vows in California. It's a right for which they worked, but never waited.

"It was something you wanted to know, 'Is it really going to happen?' And now it's happened, and maybe it can continue to happen," Lyon says.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom will officiate the private ceremony in his City Hall office before 50 invited guests. He picked Martin, 87, and Lyon, 84, for the front of the line in recognition of their long relationship and their status as pioneers of the gay rights movement.

Along with six other women, they founded a San Francisco social club for lesbians in 1955 called the Daughters of Bilitis. Under their leadership, DOB, as it became known. evolved into the nation's first lesbian advocacy organization. Lyon and Martin have the



FBI files to prove it.
The small group's purpose initially "was strictly to have a safe place where lesbians could come together and dance without being hassled by the cops," Lyon recalls. Growing the membership proved painstaking, since there was no way to reach out to people without putting themselves at risk.

"Being a lesbian wasn't something you flashed up on a sign board, 'Hi, I just found my love,'" Lyon says.

She and Martin met while working as editors of construction trade publications in Seattle. They decided to publish a newsletter with event listings, articles on topics like what to do if you were arrested in a bar raid and reviews of studies on homosexuality. All the contributors to "The Ladder" used pseudonyms for the inaugural issue, which had a mimeograph run of 165 copies.

"We began to find out a whole lot more about what was going on and what needed to be done and taken care of," Lyon says. "And guess what? It just grew and grew and grew."


In February 2004, San Francisco's new mayor decided to challenge California's marriage laws by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. His advisers and gay rights activists knew right away which couple would put the most compelling human face on the issue.

Martin and Lyon were set to celebrate their 51st anniversary as live-in lovers on Valentine's Day. Because of their work with the Daughters, they also were icons in the gay community.

"Four years ago, when they agreed to be married, it was in equal parts to support the mayor and to support the idea that lesbians and gay people formed committed relationships and should have those relationships respected," says Kate Kendell, a close friend and executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Lyon and Martin vividly recall the excitement of being secretly swept into the clerk's office, saying "I do" in front of a tiny group of city staff members and friends, and then being rushed out of the building. There were no corsages, no bottles of champagne. Afterward they went to lunch, just the two of them, at a restaurant run as a job training program for participants in a substance abuse program.

"Of course, nobody down there knew, so we were left to be by ourselves like we wanted to be," said Martin, the less gregarious of the two. "Then we came home."

"And watched TV," adds Lyon.

The privacy was short-lived. Their wedding portrait, showing the couple cradling each other in pastel-colored pantsuits with their foreheads tenderly touching, drew worldwide attention. Same-sex marriage would become legal in Massachusetts in another three months, but San Francisco's calculated act of civil disobedience drove the debate.

In the month that followed, more than 4,000 other couples followed Martin and Lyon down the aisle before a judge acting on petitions brought by gay marriage opponents halted the city's spree.

The state Supreme Court ultimately voided the unions, but the women were among the two dozen couples who served as plaintiffs in the lawsuits that led the same court last month to overturn California's ban on gay marriage.


Agreeing to be the poster girls for the gay marriage cause was easy for Lyon and Martin, although they are first to admit that saying "I do" never topped their "to do" list.

From early in their careers as activists, the two New Deal-style Democrats resented the label of sexual deviancy that forced gay men and lesbians to hide in shame. They weren't waiting for society's permission to love each other. So they set out to persuade other lesbians the only approval they needed was their own.

In 1960, six years before the National Organization for Women was founded and 13 years before the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual of mental disorders, they and other DOB members in San Francisco organized the first national convention for lesbians. About 200 women registered for the event.

For the rest of the decade, Lyon and Martin worked with the system to change it, seeking to convince California lawmakers to introduce antidiscrimination bills. Working with gay activists, they had success in getting the police to stop raiding the bars.

Still, it wouldn't be until 1992 that California would become the first state to outlaw job and housing discrimination against gay men and lesbians.

"We didn't give a damn about getting married. We wanted to get a law that said you can't fire us just because we are gay," Lyon says.


Before the state Supreme Court ruled on May 15 that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples was unjustifiable discrimination, Martin did not think the justices would rule in their favor. A midlevel appeals court already hadn't, and six of the seven justices on the high court were appointed by Republican governors.

They were having their morning coffee when Lyon heard the news on the radio. She rushed across the house to embrace Martin. Not long after, Newsom called to offer congratulations and to ask if they would be willing to be at the forefront yet again. "Sure," was the answer they gave.

The couple, who live in the same San Francisco house they bought in 1956, do not get out much now. Martin needs a wheelchair to get around. Although they plan to briefly greet well-wishers at City Hall after the ceremony, they are having a private reception for friends and family, including Lyon's sister and Martin's daughter from her first marriage.

"It's so endearing because they do seem excited and a little bit nervous," Kendell says. "It's like the classic feelings anyone has as their wedding day approaches."

Because a few other clerk's offices agreed to stay open until the court's decision becomes final at 5 p.m., other couples planning late afternoon weddings may already have tied the knot before the mayor pronounces Lyon and Martin "spouses for life." They don't mind. They know they already are.

"We didn't try to move away, that's how we stayed together," Lyon says, explaining the secret to their longevity as a couple. "You never agree wholeheartedly with everything, but we agreed pretty much with everything. We get along well. And we love each other." Lyon says.

"I love you, too," Martin says.

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