Noe Valley Voice February 2003

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon: Partners in Love and Activism

By Erin O'Briant

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon may be just as captivated as the rest of the audience on Feb. 13. That's the evening that No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, a documentary film about the lives of the two legendary lesbian rights activists, makes its world premiere at the Castro Theater.

The longtime partners and Noe Valley homeowners say they were glad to cooperate fully with filmmaker Joan E. Biren, who began making the documentary in 1999. Biren spent many hours quizzing the couple from behind her camera.

"We just sat around and talked, and she filmed. We've been doing this for four years, and I don't think we have a clue what we've said," laughs Lyon. A month before its debut, the film was still being completed, so Lyon and Martin weren't sure whether they'd see it before the public screening and celebration this month.

The two chat and laugh easily together--and finish one another's sentences--as one would expect of people who have been partners in love and activism for five decades. Indeed, the world debut of the film is the eve of the couple's 50th anniversary, on Valentine's Day. They're excited about the film screening and, it seems, a touch surprised to find their lives the subject of so much interest.

"We just did things, and I guess we just kept going," says Lyon of their half-century of activism. Martin agrees. "One thing just led to another."

The two were early members of the Daughters of Bilitis and were leaders in the modern lesbian rights movement, dating back to the 1950s. In more recent years, they've actively promoted rights for elders, both within and outside the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. In today's right-leaning political climate, Lyon notes, they're both increasingly concerned about everyone's civil rights. "And we thought the '50s were scary," Martin adds.

In many ways, they were. "We've come a long way from our goal in the 1950s, part of which was to get laws against sexual activity between consenting adults of the same sex wiped off the books. The other part was to be considered part of society," says Lyon, now 78. "We wanted our full rights and responsibilities," says Martin, 81. And they hoped to combat homophobia--a term that didn't even exist at that time.

Much has changed over the years, and Lyon and Martin were driving forces behind many of the hard-fought battles for LGBT rights, which, at the time they began their activism, were simply called gay rights. "It was a long time before the word 'lesbian' was even included in the name of Pride parades and that kind of thing," Martin notes.

Noe Valley isn't the same place it was 50 years ago, either. The couple have lived in the neighborhood since the days when it was called the Outer Mission. When they moved here in 1955, a car passing by their house on Duncan Street was an event.

"We would run to the window if we heard a car," remembers Lyon. Martin adds, "It was almost always a friend of ours."

They hardly had any neighbors. Now, of course, their hilly street is full of multiunit buildings. "It's amazing how many people live in that little area now," Lyon observes.

They remember a very different 24th Street, too. "A lot of the buildings were there," Lyon says, "but not all the restaurants and shops." They recall a movie theater, and Tuggey's Hardware was one of the major attractions on 24th Street during their first years in the neighborhood.

One thing that hasn't changed, though, is their steadfast partnership. Lots of people, straight and gay, would love to know how to keep a happy relationship going for 50 years.

But Lyon and Martin say there is no secret formula. "If we had a secret, we would have written a book and made a million dollars," says Lyon. "We love each other, we have similar interests. Our lives were very similar even before we met."

"And," jokes Martin, "we're both losing our memories at the same time."

It's a good thing they've got it all on film. h