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Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon
September 21, 1955, was, seemingly, just another ordinary Friday evening in San Francisco. A cooling fog was settling in, and the last stragglers from the day's work were filtering into their homes, grateful that the weekend was finally at hand. Many San Franciscans were sitting down to their small-screen Philco television sets, flipping through the few available channels, wishing that the new season of the number-one show, I Love Lucy, would begin. Others were stepping out to the movies to see the new MGM musical, Love Me Or Leave Me, starring Jimmy Cagney and Doris Day. Adolescents were reading about teen idol James Dean in the latest Photoplay magazine, a mere week and a half before he would meet his untimely end in an automobile crash. The minimum wage had just been raised to one dollar; the Salk polio vaccine had been approved; and a new amusement park called Disneyland had opened down in southern California. Although globally the Cold War may have raged and open-air testing of nuclear weapons may have been commonplace, the majority of Americans found the fifties settling into a calm and uncomplicated decade. And for most, that balmy autumn night was typically uneventful.
However, it was anything but typical for eight brave women who had decided they had to change their lives, whatever the cost -- even if it meant risking the loss of their jobs and the love of their families. They had come to the decision that they wanted something more than a life of shadows -- something more than an existence of lies and loneliness.
They must have been frightened as they made their way to the small, quaint house just off Fillmore Street in San Francisco's Western Addition; and it is amazing, given the stakes, that they all found the nerve to climb the steps and enter the warm, inviting home. These women, who were literally taking their lives and their livelihoods in their hands, were lesbians -- outcasts of society -- seeking strength in numbers. If the world would not accept them, they would make a world of their own.
If only it could have been that simple.
For gays and lesbians in the late 1940's and early 1950's, life in America was perilous. Senator Joseph McCarthy, notorious head of the Senate Permanent Investigating Subcommittee, labeled homosexuals in government as "enemies within," second only to Communists, and launched vitriolic witch-hunts to expose and expel them. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a directive banning gays from all federal employment. Police commonly raided places where homosexuals gathered, to harass them, or to haul them off in paddy wagons to the police station, where they were booked, photographed, and fingerprinted. Newspapers would print the names of those arrested and the notoriety could lose them their jobs or even their families; some were driven to suicide. Children were often taken away from a homosexual mother or father and never allowed to see that parent again. Loving families forcibly committed their homosexual children to mental institutions, allowing doctors to perform lobotomies in order to "cure" them. Beatings and killings were not uncommon, as the law looked the other way or declared publicly that the victims had gotten what they deserved. Given the dangers, the wisest homosexuals hid deep in the closet, praying that they would not be found out.
But that night, eight women in San Francisco were cracking open the closet door -- just a little at first, but still enough to make history.
The group that met inside the nondescript neighborhood home was diverse, ranging in age from young adulthood to midlife. Vivacious redhead Phyllis Lyon, thirty, and her assured, earth-mother lover, Del Martin, thirty-four, fell roughly in the middle. Two of the women were mothers; four were white-collar, four working-class; and among them were a Filipina and a Chicana. None of them were revolutionaries promoting some profound social reform. Instead, what they were proposing was breathtakingly simple: a club, guaranteeing its members anonymity, where lesbians could meet others like themselves and escape the constant pressure of societally induced shame; a safe haven where women could come for a few hours a week to talk about their fears, goals, and frustrations, and how to cope in a hostile world; to laugh, play cards, dance freely, and gossip -- that's all.
In 1955, however, when just inviting six lesbians over for coffee was a radical act, founding such a club was downright subversive -- and indeed, what began as a little gathering of women would rock the social order in years to come. Christened the Daughters of Bilitis, it eventually blossomed into a nationwide movement that, for the first time, gave lesbians a political voice, and that became a powerful vanguard force in the struggle for gay rights.
Asked over forty years later what they had thought would emerge from that first meeting, Phyllis replies, "Well, I can tell you what we did not envision. We did not envision three homosexuals on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. We did not envision the Gay Games. We did not envision a whole hell of a lot of stuff that has happened. Basically, Del and I got involved to meet other lesbians and broaden our circle of friends. We had no idea what the future held for us."
Roberta Achtenberg, one of those San Francisco supervisors, later the highest-ranking open lesbian ever to serve in the federal government, says, "Phyllis and Del are even better than their reputation. As younger women came up behind them, they were so encouraging and so helpful and so desirous of us to be everything that the times would allow us to be -- times which, by the way, they helped to create. Everything that was possible for us was because of the battles they fought. They won them for us."
Phyllis Lyon was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1924, less than a decade before the catastrophic drought that rendered the state the Dustbowl. When she was very young, the family made the trek west to California, initially relocating in the San Francisco Bay area. As the country was swirling into the vortex of the Great Depression, her father was fortunate enough to secure employment as a traveling salesman with the U.S. Gypsum Company, a job that led them to move from place to place around the Golden State. After living for a while with grandparents in Riverside, Phyllis finished grammar school in Berkeley, then attended junior high in Oakland and high school in Sacramento.
It was as a high-schooler that she learned her first hard lesson about the stigma of homosexuality, when a popular young boy in her drama class committed suicide. "Somehow it came out that he was gay," she recalls. The resonance of the desperate act reverberated through the school. "That was the first time I ever heard about homosexuals. And it didn't seem to make a lot of sense to me, really. Killing yourself over such a thing."
As a teenager, Phyllis knew what it was like to be different, but the realization had nothing to do with sexuality. She felt set apart because, unlike many women of those times, she was not drawn to marriage and homemaking but was determined to have a writing career. She had her sights set on a degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley. "My parents wanted me to go for another year to get a teaching certificate to fall back on," Phyllis recalls. "But I didn't want to be a teacher!"
From the Trade Paperback edition.