By the time lifelong LGBTQ activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon died at the ages of 87 and 95, they had helped change the world so extensively that the closeted days of isolation and fear they lived through can be difficult to imagine today.
Lesbians came to San Francisco seeking kindred spirits, even survival, and Martin and Lyon welcomed them.
“Their house was a place where women could come together and dance and have potlucks at a time when it was dangerous to be openly gay,” said Shayne Watson, an architectural historian and co-author of the LGBTQ Context Statement, a 381-page LGBTQ history report supported by the City, County, GLBT Historical Society and the Historic Preservation Commission. “It was a political lifeline for people, women in particular.”
In that climate, the Lyon-Martin home was a refuge for lesbians, a place to feel free and gain confidence. Now, that private sanctuary is on its way to becoming a city-designated landmark visible to all.
When the Lyon-Martin house sold in September following Lyon’s death this year, an article in SFGate speculating about its profitable redevelopment potential alarmed local LGBTQ activists and Lyon-Martin friends. Located at 651 Duncan St. on a Noe Valley hillside, the house is surrounded and dwarfed by huge, modern buildings in an area that’s experienced waves of redevelopment. Demolition could be on the horizon.
But the home is on the Context Statement’s list of properties that are important to LGBTQ history. So, activists stepped up to protect it.
They contacted District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who initiated the landmark designation that the Board of Supervisors passed unanimously on Oct. 20. Then they formed Friends of the Lyon-Martin House. So far over 150 people across the U.S. and around the world have signed a letter supporting the designation.
Martin and Lyon’s influence goes well beyond San Francisco. Their half-century of LGBTQ and feminist activism and support for individuals gave many a sense of dignity and self-worth while challenging social institutions and norms. The couple founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian organization in the U.S., during the highly conformist and intimidating McCarthy era.
Their mimeographed newsletter, The Ladder, spread to gay women all over the world, mostly passing hand-to-hand since people were afraid to be on a mailing list or even have it in their mailbox. The couple’s 1972 book “Lesbian/Woman” was the first to describe “lesbian lives in a confident, comprehensive and knowledgeable way,” the landmark designation resolution says.
In 2004, Martin and Lyon were the first couple to marry when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom challenged the law and ordered same-sex marriage licenses to be issued. The California Supreme Court nullified those marriages, but then in 2008 legalized same-sex marriage. Again, the couple became the first to wed. Two months later, when Martin died, flags at City Hall flew at half-mast in recognition.
In a 2003 documentary about Lyon and Martin, “No Secret Anymore,” Martin said, “There’s been so much change, that we’re sitting here talking like this now is a miracle to us.” Then she cautioned, “for younger people who weren’t along on this ride, nothing is permanent but change. It can change back to the way it was.”
Which is why remembering history matters.
“Landmarking the house that Del and Phyllis shared together will honor the lives of these pioneering women and serve as a lasting symbol of strength and resilience for our entire community,” said Imani Rupert-Gordon, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
The City’s Planning Department has 90 days from Oct. 20 to research and write the argument for the property’s significance and provide it to the Historical Commission, which will use it to make a landmark status recommendation to supervisors.
Mandelman’s office is working with the new owners to come up with an arrangement that respects their interests while honoring the legacy of activists so beloved by the community.
In the LGBTQ Context Statement, Roberta Achtenberg, a former San Francisco supervisor and former assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said, “As younger women came up behind [Phyllis and Del], 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.”