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How Phillis Lyon Changed The World…And My Life

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The author with her friend Phyllis Lyon

Guest Post by Dottie Lux

Yesterday was an average Thursday in the sense that, in the morning I ascended a long steep staircase, grabbing the newspaper and passing blooming daisies, to reach a blue house tucked back on the very tip-top of a sloping San Francisco hill. The best view in town if you ask anyone who’s been up there.

This was not a typical Thursday though. Usually when we go to a friend’s house it’s to say hello. But in this case –in her house, on her terms and just as the moon entered scorpio, I was there to say good-bye.

Phyllis Lyon knew me a lot shorter than I knew her. In the early 2000’s I worked at a feminst sex-toy store. I especially liked the slow weekday morning shifts because I could thumb through all the books. That’s where I read about Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the US. It’s where I learned about everything Phyllis had done…you know, just changing the world and all that. When I moved to San Francisco in 2008, I watched wide-eyed and beaming with pride for my new city as Phyllis married her lifelong love Del Martin for the 2nd time. So when I was introduced to Phyllis much later on, I was star-struck in a way I had never experienced before. Complete awe. Phyllis is a Scorpio, so of course there’s no surface talk. We just got right to it, and in this fashion we became fast friends.

Phyllis Lyon was a writer, a pioneering feminist, and a gay-rights activist that started her career in the 1950’s. She co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, and was co-president and co-editor of The Ladder (the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the US) with Del Martin her partner since 1952. Lyon’s activism continued throughout her entire life with such accompaniments as: forming The Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH), which worked to get gay acceptance into churches. This was a major fulcrum in begining to decriminalize homosexuality, which was the ultimate goal of Lyon and Martin. Phyllis was politically active forming the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, influencing Diane Fienstein to end discrimination of gays and lesbians in the workplace. In 2004 and then in 2008 Gavin Newsom married Martin and Lyon in politically charged city hall ceremonies. Both served on the White House Conference on Aging and were prolific writers including the titles Lesbian/Woman and Lesbian Love and Liberation. Both Lyon and Martin have won countless awards from almost every Gay and Lesbian organization in the country.

Phyllis Lyon, left, and Del Martin embrace after their marriage at City Hall in San Francisco, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004. They were the first to be married (AP Photo/San Francisco Chronicle, Liz Mangelsdorf).

I came to realize that we are all Phyllis, at least the parts of us that refuse to sit down and won’t go with out a fight. The parts of us that are fiercely loyal, kind, smart, and will not conform. My chosen brother and I have this theory about being gay children with straight parents; there is a early feeling of otherness. And I can remember that feeling, but I also always remember just being ok with being gay and truly not understanding why anyone else had a say in it. Gay rights made just as much sense as a lion loving to eat meat. It just is! That part is Phyllis.

Brave. That’s what Phyllis was. I know not a person more willing to look fear in the face and not give a shit. She would stick her tongue out at something scary and make it feel like a baby! Phyllis was never the type take help let alone ask for it. Anything that was a challenge she almost enjoyed like it was a game. There was no crossword puzzle, political argument, or physical task that stood a chance with her. Demolished.

Beautiful & flirty. At 95 this woman had hardly any gray hair on her head. It was thick and looked good at any length. We loved to drive down the coast together and shared romantic moments. She would caress my arm and I hers. Phyllis was open with her love and would give it freely. We shared many tender moments, hand holds, kisses and embraces. This woman loved cats and practically was one. She would purr up against you in a way that made you feel like it was only you she was willing to share that with, however, she shared this love with the world of marginalized queer folks, especially lesbians.

Funny and smart. Phyllis was always was willing to learn. We would talk about current events and legislature, but also music, art, and science. Phyllis never missed a moment to make a joke. Her humor was both self congratulatory and self deprecating. When asked if she wanted to eat meat for dinner the standard answer was “of course I eat meat, I’m a Lyon!” She found humor everywhere and her beaming smile was the infectious kind that they make cartoons with heart filters out of. Picture a lion laughing. Fierce and ferocious, powerful and intimidating, with big teeth exposed and eyes all squinted up. A magical sight too; someone so stoic and graceful allowing themselves to be equally is soft and unguarded. Even if we were in the midst of an argument, Phyllis would surprise me with a way to make light of it. This is what I think allowed her to live an unencumbered life for 95 years, laughter! If she thought a banana was cute, she would tell it and giggle at it. She had nicknames for everyone and everything and 80% of the time it was “sweetie puss” but really,  at her core she was charming, graceful, and treasured.

The author with her friend Phyllis Lyon

Everything you want to be. We shared a lot of similarities. Beyond the obvious bullheadedness and self-determination, we also could drink coffee at any time of the day, enjoy the ocean no matter the weather and give generously, while maintaining a healthy level of self-critique. This world is not good enough for someone like Phyllis, but she sure did make it a better place.

Her legacy. It’s our job to continue this…Phyllis. We must embody all of these things in such a way that no one would dare try to stop us. Whenever anyone tells you that you’re too much, hear Phyllis say “you’re just enough.” If someone says something is impossible, be like Phyllis and say “watch me!” The experience I got to have as part of the TeamLyon care squad was unlike any I have or will have in my lifetime. A hero is a person who takes risks, a dignitary, someone we learn from and look up to, a champion, a conqueror. A friend is someone who lifts you up and is there for you to confide in, personally. Phyllis was my hero for many many years before she became my friend, and everyday I will continue being astonishingly grateful for the time we had together.

We will all grieve this loss because this is a loss for all of us. We are here with rights and responsibilities (as she would put it) because of Phyllis and Del, because of the work they did and the risks they took. No writing or eulogy or biography can capture exactly what that means, but if you’re here and your queer that’s because Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon made it so.

Thank you Phyllis for everything you’ve given me personally and everything you’ve given the world. In light of this bereavement please make contributions to Lyon-Martin Health Services, especially since they are at risk of closing. I could sincerely talk about this woman for my entire life, and I probably will.

The Mourner’s Kaddish

אבל: יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא. [קהל: אמן]
בְּעָלְמָא דִּי בְרָא כִרְעוּתֵהּ וְיַמְלִיךְ מַלְכוּתֵהּ בְּחַיֵּיכון וּבְיומֵיכון וּבְחַיֵּי דְכָל בֵּית יִשרָאֵל בַּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב, וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן: [קהל: אמן]
קהל ואבל: יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ לְעָלַם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא:
אבל: יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִשְׁתַּבַּח וְיִתְפָּאַר וְיִתְרומַם וְיִתְנַשּא וְיִתְהַדָּר וְיִתְעַלֶּה וְיִתְהַלָּל שְׁמֵהּ דְּקֻדְשָׁא. בְּרִיךְ הוּא. [קהל: בריך הוא:]
לְעֵלָּא מִן כָּל בִּרְכָתָא בעשי”ת: לְעֵלָּא לְעֵלָּא מִכָּל וְשִׁירָתָא תֻּשְׁבְּחָתָא וְנֶחֱמָתָא דַּאֲמִירָן בְּעָלְמָא. וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן: [קהל: אמן]
יְהֵא שְׁלָמָא רַבָּא מִן שְׁמַיָּא וְחַיִּים עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשרָאֵל. וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן: [קהל:אמן]
עושה שָׁלום בעשי”ת: הַשָּׁלום בִּמְרומָיו הוּא יַעֲשה שָׁלום עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשרָאֵל וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן: [קהל: אמן]

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.



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