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San Francisco Designates Pioneering Lesbians' Home a Landmark

Lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon

The place where Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon founded the Daughters of Bilitis and launched The Ladder will be preserved for generations to come. 

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The cottage in San Francisco where lesbian pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon made their home and a haven for LGBTQ+ people beginning in 1955 has now been assigned landmark status. A request for the minimum of a plaque on the sidewalk will be submitted within six months, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to designate the hilltop home at 651 Duncan St. landmark status. The one-bedroom house was the place where Lyon and Martin helped found the political group the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955.

“The Daughters of Bilitis didn’t have an office space, so 651 was really ground zero for the lesbian rights movement at the time. It was a place where people could be safe and reveal their sexuality,” said GLBT Historical Society Executive Director Terry Beswick, according to the Associated Press.

“They provided a place for lesbians who were really, really, really in the closet to hang out and dance, have holiday potlucks so they wouldn’t have to go home and hang out with their homophobic relatives,” said Shayne Watson,  an architectural historian who worked to land the home’s landmark status. 

Nearly 50 years after they helped launch the Daughters of Bilitis, in 2004, Gavin Newsom, then San Francisco's mayor, officiated their wedding in the city clerk’s office in a challenge to the state’s marriage laws. While courts forced the city to invalidate that marriage (along with others that were performed), Martin and Lyon were the first to receive a marriage license there. They were one of the couples that sued for equal marriage rights in the state in the case that resulted in the California Supreme Court ruling to strike down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. They became one of the first two same-sex couples to marry in the state (simultaneously, Robin Tyler and Diane Olson became the first to wed in Los Angeles).

Lyon and Martin began their relationship in 1952 in Seattle, where they both worked on a magazine, and moved to San Francisco the following year. 

In 1956, they began publishing The Ladder, a monthly magazine featuring political articles, poetry, and fiction for a lesbian audience. It continued publication until 1972.

Martin died in 2008 and Lyon died in April 2020. They left their home to Martin’s daughter, Kendra Mon. The cottage was then sold to Meredith Jones McKeown, the home’s current owner, who supports the landmark designation. Soon after, an organization formed to save the home from demolition called the Friends of Lyon-Martin House. The group worked with the GLBT Historical Society as a financial sponsor, according to the AP.

The aim is to preserve the interior of the home to be used as a research facility and a center for LGBTQ+ activism and history.

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