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Lesbian Pioneer Awaits Court Decision

by James Patterson
Sunday Jun 9, 2013

Lesbian pioneer Phyllis Lyon is waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court decision on California's Proposition 8 and said that if the state's same-sex marriage ban is struck down, couples considering marriage should "Do it."

Lyon, 88, a longtime Noe Valley resident, said her marriage to activist Dorothy "Del" Martin, who died in 2008, did not change their relationship.

"We had already been together 50 years," she said.

"We felt it was about time," Lyon said when she and Martin learned they could marry in 2004. "Let's do it," they said to each other. She said they honeymooned at home with their cats.

On February 12, 2004, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom married Lyon and Martin in City Hall. Lyon said they wanted to get married because it was "a good thing to do and it would make it easier for others." The couple was among about 4,000 same-sex couples married by city officials during a monthlong "Winter of Love."

"Our ceremony was pretty quick," Lyon said, "but it was a 50-year wait."

Lyon met Martin in 1950 when they worked for a magazine in Seattle. Three years later, in San Francisco, they became a couple and bought the one bedroom house in which Lyon still lives. Of their lives together before marriage, Lyon said it was "close to a marriage without having it."

The couple's 181-day marriage ended in August 2004 when the California Supreme Court voided all the San Francisco same-sex marriages that year because, it said, Newsom lacked state authority to marry same-sex couples.

In May 2008, the California Supreme Court overturned Proposition 22 and ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. Lyon and Martin exchanged vows again on June 16. They were the first same-sex couple to wed on the first day that such couples could marry in California.

"We wore the same suits," Lyon said.

Lyon said they received well wishes from friends across the country. The couple was married only 74 days when Martin died.

Lyon has photographs of her two marriages to Martin in her home. "It's hard for me tell which photographs are from which marriage," she said.

State passage of Prop 8 in November 2008 did not affect their marriage. The California Supreme Court later upheld Prop 8 but also upheld the marriages of the estimated 18,000 same-sex couples who wed during the five-month span.

The federal case now before the U.S. Supreme Court is about the constitutionality of Prop 8. Lyon said she followed the oral arguments in the Prop 8 case mostly from newspapers. She said Prop 8 was "a silly thing" and she was looking forward to a decision on it.

In past decades, people reacted with surprise to hear of two women or two men discussing marriage, she said. "Not so much anymore."

Lyon said same-sex marriage "should have been legal a long time ago."

"No reason against it," she said, "but stupidity and the concept of marriage as only between a man and a woman."

Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, is a longtime friend. She said the Lyon and Martin were central figures in the fight for marriage equality.

"Del and Phyllis contributed so much to the fight for an end to discrimination and stigma," Kendell said.

Martin and Lyon's 50-year relationship made a strong public case for marriage equality, according to Kendell.

"Their picture and story put a human and deeply moving face on the issue for millions of Americans and helped to move understanding about our relationships," she said.

Lyon said that these days, she enjoys reading and working crossword puzzles.

"I am very fortunate," Lyon said. "I feel fine and I am very healthy." She said she doesn't "go galloping around the Castro" anymore. She has also given up driving.

With their fifth wedding anniversary only days away, Lyon said she plans a quiet celebration alone at home with memories of the wife she affectionately called "Sweetie."

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  • Bram, 2013-06-24 14:53:53

    Thank you for all you have done.

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