May 3, 2021

The Lyon-Martin House Preserves the Story of Lesbian Advocates Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin

The story of the Lyon-Martin House in San Francisco, California, is about a window. In 1955, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin bought a home together, and like many other couples, Lyon and Martin preferred to have a picturesque view. Charmed by a small residence with an almost floor-to-ceiling picture window, the couple could look out at a beautiful perspective of the city below.

While Lyon and Martin have both passed away, their home still stands as a testament to their lesbian outreach. This central window remains a prominent architectural feature and a symbol of Lyon and Martin’s groundbreaking experience as queer activists.

The house provides insight into California’s changing architectural aesthetics, but the true historical significance derives from the women who once called this place home. When they met in 1950, Phyllis Lyon (1924-2020) and Del Martin (1921-2008) were both journalists, and they put these journalism skills to work, together, writing about lesbian maternal care, LGBTQ legal rights, and discrimination.

Image of two women sitting on a couch with a bookshelf in the background.

photo by: GLBT Historical Museum

Lyon and Martin were reporters and active contributors to their community. In addition to her appointment to the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, Martin also helped found the Lesbian Mothers Union. Lyon co-authored essays and a book about lesbian representation. Several monuments honor the women: the Lyon-Martin Health Services clinic—which was recently designated a San Francisco Legacy Business—the LGBT Journalists Hall of Fame, and the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor. These locations all help tell the story of these women, but historians can find important traces of Lyon’s and Martin’s extraordinary lives woven throughout their beloved home of 65 years.

More Than a House

Passing by this site, people may not immediately recognize its significance in lesbian history. The structure is modest. Bright blue trim and the prominent front window contrast against the dark wooden shingles and stucco that cover the exterior of the building. The facade is reminiscent of the uniquely American shingle architecture, a style that became popular in the Bay Area in the late 1800s as residents moved away from more traditional Victorian designs. Concrete steps lead up to the home from the street below.

Exterior of a modest house on a hill with stairs running up the right side. The house is a deep blue with a large picture window in the center.

photo by: Y.A. studio

View of the Lyon-Martin House picture window.

Although simple in appearance, the Lyon-Martin home preserves its owners’ legacy as queer icons in San Francisco and beyond. When Lyon and Martin moved to California, lesbians had few public places to meet and socialize. While a handful of gay bars existed in the city, the bar patrons were often exposed to police raids and harassment. The couple regularly invited queer guests to come to their home to dance and socialize. Lyon and Martin may have been the only ‘out’ lesbians that many of these guests knew. The quaint California cottage became a much-needed haven for LGBTQ women.

Lyon and Martin completed much of their political and literary outreach within this house. Soon after Lyon and Martin moved in, other women congregated to the 765-square-foot home to form the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil rights organization in the United States—though the initial idea for the organization occurred at the nearby home of another couple Rose Bamberger and her partner Rosemary Sliepan. From their kitchen table, Lyon and Martin wrote a newsletter for the organization called The Ladder to educate the public about lesbian health and identity. The publication filled a much-needed gap in public awareness about sexuality, and it circulated to readers across the United States for sixteen years.

Several years after the organization’s founding in Lyon and Martin’s house, the group grew to have a national impact. Other women created their own chapters of the Daughters of Bilitis to advocate for lesbian rights in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and beyond.

LGBTQ archives, especially those at the GLBT Historical Society, have preserved copies of The Ladder and other information about the Daughters of Bilitis. However, the residence on Duncan Street breathes life into these annals. The home provides a unique perspective into how these civil rights leaders lived and worked. The kitchen table or the front window can serve as educational artifacts because of their significance for Lyon, Martin, and the other Daughters of Bilitis who visited the home.

Shayne Watson, an architectural historian, says that “Lyon and Martin were well-known authors in the lesbian community, and they wrote many of their essays right here at their kitchen table. That table is special, and it isn’t in a museum somewhere; it’s still in this home.”

Image of two women sitting at at table.

photo by: GLBT Historical Museum

However, the large window that first attracted Lyon and Martin to their home came to pose a threat. Passersby peering through the window might recognize the women inside, which could result in the women being outed, harassed, or worse. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower had signed an executive order that listed ‘sexual perversion’ as a fireable offense for federal workers, and across the nation, police continued to arrest people on charges of sodomy. While Lyon’s and Martin’s guests could look out the window, the couple also realized that onlookers could also look into their home.

So, while Lyon and Martin adored the front window, they added curtains.

Now, preservationists are seeking to pull back the curtains of time to educate the public about the couple’s instrumental efforts to secure LGBTQ rights.

Preserving the Lyon-Martin House

Christina Morris, a senior field director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the lead on the National Trust's Where Women Made History campaign, explains why the Lyon-Martin house has attracted widespread attention:

“This house may be small, but it has outsized significance stretching far beyond San Francisco or California. Phyllis and Del’s lifetime of activism battling discrimination against the LGBTQ communities and violence against women has changed thousands of lives. This is a place where women had a national impact on LGBTQ civil rights on par with Stonewall, and it deserves that same level of respect and recognition.”

Securing historic designation for the Lyon-Martin House has been a community effort. Watson has been connected to the Lyon-Martin House for years. She says, “I've been thinking about and watching this site since 2008 when I started researching my MA thesis for USC on lesbian history in San Francisco. Fast forward to 2015, when the Lyon-Martin House was one of a few dozen sites identified as eligible local landmarks in the Citywide Historic Context Statement for LGBTQ History in San Francisco, for which I served as coauthor with Donna Graves, who is also a National Trust Advisor. In September 2020, I came across an article in a local newspaper about a tiny cottage in San Francisco that had recently sold for $2.25M. I knew immediately that it was the Lyon-Martin House.”

Afraid of what might become of the property without a historic designation to preserve the home, Watson partnered with the GLBT Historical Society, District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, San Francisco Heritage, andfriends, family, and fans of Lyon and Martin. Together, this group pushed for the Lyon-Martin House to receive recognition as a local historic landmark.

In February 2020, a nomination drawn heavily from Watson’s research was approved by the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission, recommending landmark status for the house at 651 Duncan and its lot, but not the adjacent undeveloped lot that also had been owned by Lyon and Martin. On April 26, National Lesbian Visibility Day, that same designation sailed through the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Commission, with unanimous support from the Supervisors and the public.

“This is a place where women had a national impact on LGBTQ civil rights on par with Stonewall, and it deserves that same level of respect and recognition.”

Christina Morris, National Trust for Historic Preservation

The full Board of Supervisors voted and approved the ordinance on May 4, and with the mayor's signature—expected by the end of June—the Lyon-Martin House will be established as the first landmark of lesbian activism in San Francisco.

Over the last five months, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has advocated for landmarking the Lyon-Martin House by submitting comments and conducting other advocacy efforts. Future projects to preserve the legacy of the Lyon-Martin House include working with partners to conduct oral histories as well as 3D and virtual documentation, and supporting a new use that builds on Lyon and Martin's legacy of activism.

“The home embodies [Lyon’s and Martin’s] memory and their work,” Watson explains. She elaborates, “Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin loved this home, they loved the full spectrum of San Francisco LGBTQ communities, and the community loved them back. It was those community members who rallied to save this home. Preserving the Lyon-Martin House is way of honoring this extraordinary couple’s contributions to American history.”

Lyon and Martin were two women of many firsts. They started the first lesbian organization in the United States, published the first nationally distributed lesbian periodical in the United Sates, and were the first lesbian couple to be wed after same-sex marriage was legalized in California in 2008. Fittingly, their home will now be the first lesbian local historical site in San Francisco. Preserving the Lyon-Martin House is one step in a larger effort to recognize the many queer voices and stories that remain untold.

Looking through the picture window in the Lyon-Martin House today, a visitor may reflect on the discrimination that forced lesbians to hide behind closed curtains in the mid-1900s. But Phyllis Lyon, Del Martin, and other outspoken lesbian advocates fought for a safer future for the next generations of LGBTQ+ people. And unlike the Daughters of Bilitis who met in this home, perhaps a same-sex couple can now enjoy the view from the window without fear.

Additional information regarding the history of the Lyon-Martin House was provided by historian Gerard Koskovich .

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Laken Brooks is a current graduate student at the University of Florida. When Laken is not teaching or researching, she enjoys traveling, visiting free little libraries, and going to archives.

lbrooks@savingplaces.org

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