Saturday, April 11, 2020

April 11, 2020: Remembering Phyllis Lyon

APRIL 11, 2020:

Phyllis Lyon, pioneer lesbian activist, was my friend. I know that she is resting in peace because she lived in peace.

I'm not saying she was always happy and cheerful. But she knew who she was and why she was doing what she did for all gay people, and she had Del Martin for a partner in all of it. Phyl embraced her life. And she saw the fruits of her labors in her lifetime! How many pioneers get to have that?
For those unfamiliar with Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, here is a paragraph from Phyl's obituary in the Bay Area Reporter:

"Lyon and Martin moved to San Francisco and embarked on a lifelong career of activism. In 1955, along with three other lesbian couples, they co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis. Known as DOB, it was the first political and social organization for lesbians in the United States. Shortly after founding DOB, the couple began publishing The Ladder, the first monthly lesbian publication focused on politics, fiction, poetry and connecting lesbians across the country. The founding of DOB and the publication of The Ladder, continuously from 1956-1972, were acts of immense political courage at a time of unchecked harassment and violence directed at 'homosexuals,' largely at the hands of law enforcement and political officials."

Phyl and Del were the real deal, and they never stopped working to change the world. My ex, Margo, is a San Francisco native. She told me as a teenager, she used to look up their number in the phone book, and contemplate calling them. She never got up the nerve to do it, but just looking at the listing gave her courage. Two out lesbian activists listed in the phone book!

If Margo had ever phoned, they would certainly have invited her to chat. Phyl and Del were the two most down-to-earth, practical, unfussy people I ever met. They had their own vision of what they needed to do and, at the same time, were open to everyone else's project.

I met them through my friend, Pat Bond, who was part of the lesbian scene in San Francisco in the 50's, along with Phyl and Del. Not that Pat was a member of DOB! Oh no! She was all about the bar scene. But it was a small world then, and all the dykes knew each other. Pat was a great, raucous storyteller and went on to tour the country, telling stories about being a lesbian in the 50's, first in the Army and then in San Francisco. For her early audiences, Pat was the first out lesbian performer they'd ever seen.

When Pat died in 1990, I wanted to start an award for lesbians over 60 in her memory, and I asked Phyl and Del if they would help. They said yes! Enthusiastically! I was in awe of them, just like Margo at 16, and couldn't believe these famous activists would BE HAPPY to give their time to a frivolous project like The Pat Bond Memorial Old Dyke Award. I expected them to say, "We're busy and we have to think about it. We'll get back to you." But that wasn't Phyl and Del's way. They said yes to a LOT of things. They were open to what the world asked of them. That's what I mean about living in peace. 

So we had the first meeting of the Pat Bond Memorial Old Dyke Award organizing committee. Ten women, all over 60 except for 45-year-old me. One of the women said, "Don't you think 'Old Dyke' is a bit off-putting? What if someone refused the award because of the name? How about 'senior lesbian'?" Several of the other women chimed in to agree with her.

Didn't they see the humor, the in-your-faceness of "Old Dyke" in the title? I was so upset I was speechless. I don't know if anyone noticed the steam coming out of my ears. It was "Old Dyke" or I was walking out.

Then Phyl and Del spoke up. "Well, Pat always called herself an old dyke. So if someone is uncomfortable with that, they probably shouldn't get the award." Phyl and Del were not excited. They were not battling anyone, they were not arguing for their position. They were simply stating what was common sense to them.

Well, "Old Dyke Award" it remained! These two had so much credibility after everything they'd accomplished. Probably everyone on the committee was in awe of them, as I was. I will be eternally grateful to Phyl and Del for their matter-of-fact declaration. The Pat Bond Memorial Old Dyke Award went on to honor many old dykes and hold many wondrous award ceremonies.

Then, on February 12, 2004, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were married by Mayor Newsom in the Mayor's Office in City Hall. It wasn't publicized in advance, and it wasn't legal. But it was the shot across the bow for that battle, when gay marriage still seemed like a far-fetched dream.

And four years later, when gay marriage was finally legal in California, Phyl and Del were the first couple to be wed in the state, wearing their same outfits and in the same location. I'm proud to say that I was a guest at their wedding. Here's my invitation, which hangs on my wall, framed:
We arrived at City Hall to be greeted by well-wishers and not so well-wishers.
Can you believe people would go out of their way to ruin someone else's WEDDING??
The wedding itself was an intimate affair, with friends and family and the press from the entire world crammed into the Mayor's Office. 
Del was already very ill. She stayed in her wheelchair.
This photo I got from the internet. All others are mine. I love the little smile on Del's face.
After the ceremony, we went to the Rotunda where they cut the cake.
Those of us who were guests at the wedding had to stand in the balcony,
because an adoring public had flooded in and taken every available seat.

Outside City Hall, we were greeted by a glorious mob, mixed with a few naysayers.

And then it was on to the party at a nearby restaurant.

And then it was over, and Phyl and Del went home.
This was quite a cake. The golden balls were gilded puff pastry filled with cream. The baker is being applauded by all. And here's me in my going-to-first-legal-gay-wedding-in-California finery.

Less than two months later, Del died. They had a beautiful memorial to her in the same rotunda where she and her wife had so recently cut their wedding cake.
You know, if you're a lesbian of my generation, you experience a lot of firsts in your life that are meaningful, even if they were something that you didn't even know you were missing.

For example, when I saw Ellen Degeneres come out in her sitcom in 1997, I felt something inside me heal a little.

As a person who never watches TV, a lesbian sitcom lead was not on my list of important breakthroughs for gay people. But when I watched that episode, I realized that, yes, this is part of being an American -- having a sitcom hero who reflects who YOU are -- and I never thought it would happen.
Similarly, Del's memorial began with an honor guard marching in to the Rotunda.  Six men and women, stepping in time, playing drums and carrying flags representing the Sheriff's Department, the Police Department and the Fire Department.  I had never thought, "Gee, I wish a famous gay person could have an honor guard at their funeral."  But when they marched in, honoring Del, I got chills. I cried. I felt a little more healed. I had never imagined a lesbian activist would receive an honor guard from her city.

These ways of belonging -- people who are straight and white just take them for granted. And those of us who are outsiders take for granted being excluded. I will never forget that honor guard for Del.

I continued to see Phyl, as she continued to include me in her life. Phyl always made me feel that she was genuinely happy to see me. I think she and Del really appreciated that I had taken care of Pat Bond when she was sick. Also, because of Pat, I was connected to the Old Days.

When I was invited to Phyl's 80th birthday party, I decided to make a collage out of photos of her and Del and various parts of The Ladder, the magazine of the Daughters of Bilitis. I had acquired six copies of The Ladder at a silent auction benefitting a lesbian organization. I treasured those Ladders. They were a gateway to an earlier time in lesbian culture.

I remember one letter to the editor in particular, from a woman dealing with a co-worker who made homophobic comments. Of COURSE, she responded by saying something even MORE homophobic, in order to deflect the possibility that her co-workers might consider HER "one of them." I mean, she described this as something that every dyke knew she had to do to keep her job.

Gay people have lived with so much pain.

I color xeroxed many pages of The Ladder, downloaded photos of Phyl and Del from the internet, included my "Just Married -- Finally!" photo from their wedding. At Phyl's birthday party, two other people brought framed pictures.  One was a proclamation in a beautiful gilt frame.  The other was an elegantly mounted news article about the wedding.  I felt embarrassed by my funky, home-made offering.
Really, how can you give someone a present to hang on their wall anyway? It's absolutely the most iffy kind of gift. Let alone something homemade. I was sure it would end up in a closet.
The next time I came to visit Phyl, I saw the framed proclamation and the news article hanging on the wall above the living room couch.

And there was MY collage, on the wall next to the bathroom door, where she must have looked at it several times a day. I told Phyl how embarrassed I had been by my gift at her party. She laughed and said, "You're so silly.  I love it!"  I took this photo of her holding it. We were both happy.

Goodby, Phyl. Thank you for being my friend. It was a great honor to be part of your life.

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