On gay marriage

On Feb. 12, 2004, more than 50 years after they met and fell in love, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were married, the first gay couple legally wed in San Francisco after Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that he would allow same-sex marriages in his city. Six months later, that marriage was voided when the California Supreme Court ruled that Newsom had overstepped his authority. When the court ruled in 2008 that gays had a right to marry under the state Constitution, Lyon and Martin returned to San Francisco City Hall, where, on June 16, Newsom performed a second wedding for the two. Martin died in August, before California voters passed Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage once again. In early May, as the state waited for the court to rule on the legality of Proposition 8, we asked Lyon, now 84, to recall her life with Martin.

Del and I met on the job up in Seattle in about 1950. We were both working for a publishing company.

One night, Del and I and another woman decided to go and have a cocktail at the press club. We were sitting there yakking and somehow got on the topic of homosexuality. I had no clue about lesbians at that point. I had never even heard the word. My other friend, Pat, didn’t know any more about the subject than I did. Finally, one of us asked Del, “How come you know so much about this subject”? She said, “Because I am one.”


Well, that was very interesting.

Some months later, Del and I were in my apartment. We were sitting on the couch in the living room when she made a sort-of half-pass at me, and I made a pass back. That was the first time I’d ever had sex with a woman. I didn’t fall madly in love instantly. But I really liked Del as a person.

After I moved back to San Francisco, she started coming down from Seattle more. She asked me if I’d consider becoming a couple. I said, gee whiz, I didn’t know. I really hadn’t thought about settling down.

She went back to Seattle, but we kept in touch. At some point, I thought, why not? It’s not necessarily forever. I drove out to the ocean and sat there and wrote a note to her saying that if she still wanted to, I’d like to get together with her in San Francisco. It turns out that, at about the same time, one of her friends in Seattle said, “Why don’t you just drop that dame, she’s never going to go with you.” Del was seriously thinking about dropping me when she got my letter.

I rented a small apartment for us on Castro Street. It wasn’t a gay neighborhood back then. We had some problems getting along in the beginning. Both of us had been living alone for a long time, and we weren’t used to having to think about another person. She kept leaving her shoes in the middle of the living room, and this annoyed me. One time I threw one out into the backyard. That didn’t help.

At some point, a friend gave us a kitten, and I’ve always said that’s what kept us together that first year: We couldn’t split up because we couldn’t figure out how to divide the kitten.

This was a time when you didn’t talk about being a lesbian. You’d get fired. But I said when I went to work full time at an import-export firm that I wasn’t going to lie. I wouldn’t make up men that I was dating.

After a couple of years, we wanted to move someplace quieter. One day, we were driving along and saw a house for sale, and the man wanted $11,000 for it. We didn’t have any savings. We were both making maybe $300 or $400 a month, and that’s not much. But we just knew we had to have that house. We got it -- with its wonderful view.

The one thing we couldn’t find was lesbians. We wanted to meet other lesbians, so we had been going to the bars, but we were too shy to go up and introduce ourselves. Then, at an after-hours party, we met a lesbian, and we got a chance to talk to her.

A few months later, she asked if we’d be interested in helping start a highly secret society for lesbians. We said, of course. That was the beginning of our involvement in the whole movement. We were supposed to recruit others, but Del and I didn’t know any other lesbians. We did finally that first year get a few members, but it was very difficult. You couldn’t advertise in the paper.

Del and I had full lives. We were both Democrats, and from the time we got together we were involved with the Democratic Party here in the city. We used to sit around with Nancy Pelosi and stuff envelopes. And we knew Phil Burton and his brother, John Burton, and Phil’s wife, Sala, who took Phil’s spot in Congress when he died.

We never even thought about getting married back then. It didn’t become an issue for a long time -- in fact, it never was much of an issue for us. The gay rights movement was new, and there were so many other issues. We wanted a law that would keep people from getting fired because they were gay. We wanted a law that made it illegal to throw people out of their houses because they were gay. We were feminists, and a lot of the feminist movement was opposed to marriage because the institution gave men power over women. We hadn’t really thought about marriage, and we’d certainly never thought about getting married ourselves. It wasn’t an option.

Then, in 2004, it all bubbled up. A day or so before Mayor Newsom announced that San Francisco would allow marriages, we got a call saying we were going to be the first couple. I don’t know that anybody asked us. It was just, you’re going to do this. They had picked us to be the first couple.

Kate Kendell [executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights] came over and picked us up. Luckily, each of us had just gotten a new pantsuit. Kate whisked us down to City Hall and into Mabel Teng’s office. She was the recorder, and she was the one who was going to do the wedding. We realized we didn’t have rings. Who’d thought about rings? We borrowed them.

Teng married us. Then Kate took us upstairs to Newsom’s office -- we’d never met him before -- and he kissed us and hugged us, and then Kate whisked us past the reporters outside City Hall and into the car and took us home. We got home around noon. We looked at each other and said, “We’re all dressed up, what are we going to do?” I said, “I don’t know, but there’s not a damn thing in the house for lunch.” So we went down to our favorite restaurant by the waterfront. It was all very peaceful and calm.

It didn’t really surprise us when the court stopped the marriages. We thought it was pretty stupid and that they’d be sorry one day. We became part of the suit challenging California’s ban on gay marriage.

By the time the Supreme Court ruled again that gay marriage was legal, we were more involved in the issues. We were once again the first couple married in San Francisco.

Del died a few months later, before Proposition 8 passed. She died a married woman. As far as I know, we’re still married. They haven’t ruled yet about the people who got married, but most people think they’re not going to cancel those marriages.

I’m optimistic about the future. Look at all the states that have now done this. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. They may not all last. But it’s going to be all right. It may not be while I’m alive, but eventually it will work out that if two people want to get married, they can get married and it won’t matter to whom. We went through this before with people of color. It will be OK.