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Before Stonewall

24 Oct Posted by in • Jewelle Gomez | Comments Off on Before Stonewall
Before Stonewall

Phyllis Lyon and The Temperamentals

New Conservatory Theatre, which was the saintly producer of my play, Waiting for Giovanni, has an intriguing new play coming up on November 4thThe Temperamentals is an award-winning new play about Harry Hay his love affair with avant garde fashion designer, Rudi Gernreich and their founding of the first U.S. LGBT national organization—the Mattachine Society.  The play’s run also corresponds with the birthday of Phyllis Lyon who co-founded (with the late Del Martin) the Daughters of Bilitis shortly after the Mattachine Society.  The period was energized by heightened consciousness of gay rights in California at a time that queers were still jailed and pathologized. Phyllis will be a guest of honor at the opening night and below is the interview I did with her for the show’s playbill:

“I do, I do” is not just the title of a Mary Martin musical from the 1960s. Those are the words that Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were finally allowed to say to each other when they were married…twice by Mayor Gavin Newsom. After being in a relationship for more than 50 years, they became the poster couple for equal marriage during the 2008 campaign against Proposition 8, but their activism reaches back much further in San Francisco and LGBT history.

The United States of the 1950s saw more than the birth of rock and roll and the advent of pedal pushers. A deep shadow of anti-Communist suspicion hovered over the country like the deadly mushroom cloud U.S scientists had invented to end World War II. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee attempted to ‘cleanse’ the government and Hollywood of suspected Communists ruining the careers of hundreds of government employees, politicians, actors, directors and writers. Even after McCarthy’s censure the country continually looked over its shoulder for the mysterious enemy. Into this political maelstrom the homophile movement was born. I had tea with Phyllis last week and poked into her past especially the parts about sex, romance and politics.

“I had no idea that women had sex with other women when I met Del at the job,” says Phyllis with a twinkle in her eye, “but I liked her a lot. She was the first woman I ever saw carrying a briefcase.”  Her twinkle gets bigger!

She goes on: “We used to go to a little bar after work, two or three women from the office, and one night Del started telling us about lesbians and I said ‘For heaven’s sake, how come you know so much abut lesbians?’ and she said: ‘Because I’m one’  Obviously, after that I thought I’d like to try it.”

They made their way to a relationship despite the social strictures which barely allowed women in the work place and didn’t acknowledge female sexual desire at all. After setting up housekeeping, first on Castro Street, then later in Noe Valley, Phyllis and Del looked for other lesbians with whom they could share a social life. However most gay people lived in fear of losing their jobs and rejection by their families so there was little public life outside the bars.

Once settled into their new home Phyllis and Del did expand their circle and had space to invite women over, including a room with no carpet—perfect for dancing. From those small, lively gatherings grew the formation of the first national lesbian social and political organization, the Daughters of Bilitis (so named to sound like a poetry society) and its national publication, The Ladder.

The creation of DOB doubled the number of organizations addressing the rights of the LGBT community. The one other group, the Mattachine Society, was co-founded by Harry Hay several years earlier. In fact the first issue of The Ladder was printed on the mimeograph machine in the San Francisco office of the Mattachine Society, which was located down the street from where Phyllis worked at Glide Memorial Church.

“We wanted to print a thousand copies but the mimeo broke after 200. But we got a tremendous response from the first issue. Women wouldn’t let any one take their copy away; they would read it out loud to each other at parties or huddle over a copy on some stairs.”

Despite the bravery required to create an open physical and literary space for lesbians Phyllis did use a pen name, Ann Ferguson, when she wrote for The Ladder, at least for a short time in the beginning.

“I don’t know who I was hiding from, maybe my parents. But where would they see The Ladder?” She said laughing. “The atmosphere at that time made everybody scared they’d be found out and nobody fought back.”

Phyllis and Del spent their lives fighting back, participating in local Democratic politics, becoming the first lesbians accepted into the National Organization of Women as a couple, advocating for abused women, and other progressive causes.

The headline on the San Francisco Chronicle on June 16, 2008, the day of their first marriage read: “I never thought it would happen in our lifetime.”   And without their persistence, political acumen, and fierce commitment to the rights of lesbians and all people it never would have happened—for them or for the 18,000 other couples who later married in California.

Phyllis and her partner Del, who passed away shortly after their second wedding, made history using one of the basic feminist principles: the personal is political. Turning 87 in November, Phyllis still keeps her eye on the progress of gay rights. She’s excited about the recent legislation requiring gay history to be taught in California’s public schools.

“People need to see how we started and the work we did makes everybody’s life better. I know there’s some negative ‘to do’ about it, but if they’re going to teach any history they can teach all history. It’s all connected.”

If you’re interested in the romance behind the founding of the Mattachine Society check out The Temperamentals.

Jewelle Gomez is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories.   Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp.  Or her website:

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