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Pioneering LGBT+ activist, civil rights hero and face of the same-sex marriage movement Phyllis Lyon has died, aged 95

Vic Parsons April 10, 2020
Phyllis Lyon, pioneering lesbian activist, has died at the age of 95

Del Martin (L) and Phyllis Lyon (R) exchange rings as they are married by San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom in a private ceremony at San Francisco City Hall June 16, 2008 in San Francisco, California. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AFP via Getty Images)

Pioneering lesbian activist and civil rights hero Phyllis Lyon has died at the age of 95.

Lyon died of natural causes at her home in San Francisco on Thursday, April 9, according to her friend Kate Kendell.

Living her life with “joy and wonder”, Kendell said that Lyon and her wife Del Martin were activists and mentors long before there was such a thing as an LGBT+ community.

“Before cell phones they always had their phone number listed in the phone book in case any young or terrified LGBT+ person needed help or support,” she said. “And they fielded dozens of calls over the years.”

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom – who granted the couple San Francisco’s first same-sex marriage license, in 2004, when he was mayor – remembered Lyon as a “dear friend”.

“Phyllis and Del were the manifestation of love and devotion,” Newsom tweeted.

“Yet for over 50 years they were denied the right to say two extraordinary words: I do.

“Phyllis – it was the honor of a lifetime to marry you and Del. Your courage changed the course of history.”

While their 2004 marriage was voided by the courts, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin went on to become the face of equal marriage in the US and in 2008 were one of the first same-sex couples to marry when it became legal in California.

The pair met when Lyon was working as a journalist in Seattle, and were one of the lesbian couples who co-founded the first lesbian organisation in the US, Daughters of Bilitis, in 1955.

The iconic LGBT+ activist is being remembered as a “giant” and “pioneer” who changed the world for LGBT+ people.

Darrel Cummings, chief of staff at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, said: “There are many who can rightfully claim that they helped build the modern movement for LGBT+ rights.

“But among those many pioneers, there are few who can claim so central a role as Phyllis Lyon and her wife Del.

“While the loss of Phyllis makes this a profoundly sad day, I hope we can focus on the groundbreaking impact she and Del had on our community from the founding of the Daughters of Bilitis to their hard-fought battles to transform the National Organization for Women (NOW) into a lesbian-inclusive organization and their activism on behalf of LGBT+ seniors.

“We will miss Phyllis to be sure, but we will always feel her presence in the continuing march toward full equality and justice for the LGBTQ community.”

Lyon was born on 10 November 1924 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Her wife died in 2008, weeks after the couple married for the second time, aged 87.

The Supreme Court legalised equal marriage in the US in 2015.

More: Daughters of Bilitis, equal marriage, Gavin Newsom, lesbian activism, los angeles lgbt center, Phyllis Lyon, same sex marriage

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