"We lost a giant today,"
tweeted California State Sen. Scott Weiner, who is chairman of the
LGBTQ caucus. A giant is exactly what the ninety-five-year-old
Phyllis Lyon was, along with her partner Del Martin, who died at age
eighty-seven in 2008.
My friend the sailor broke the news to
me. She e-mailed, Del and Phyllis made a difference in my life. Yours
too? No finer compliment could be given.
I responded: Oh, this hurts. They
certainly made a difference for me. I was able to read their
creation, “The Ladder,” from age fifteen on. They were role
models as a couple and in their activism. Thanks for breaking it to
Yes, with my hair slicked back by my
father’s Vitalis, in the hand me downs from a boy across the court,
hoping to someday own a pinky ring, and waiting to reach an age when
I could frequent the rough and tumble gay bars downtown, my
girlfriend Suzy and I spotted the magazine founded by Phyllis and
It was an unthinkable accomplishment
then, the production of a periodical about ourselves. We weren’t
even old enough to legally buy it. Suzy, the bolder of us, probably
took it to the register anyway. Or maybe some other babydyke swiped
it, afraid to take it to a cashier, and passed it on, afraid to take
it home to Brooklyn or New Jersey where she lived with her parents.
If Suzy and I were afraid to purchase
“The Ladder,” I cannot imagine the enormous courage of Del and
Phyllis. They gathered material from closeted lesbians, signed their
real names to their own writings, and, braver still, approached a
printer. I remember the struggle Tee Corinne and I had twenty-five
years later, getting our local copy shop to print our self-published
Where had this paper miracle come from?
Who was behind it? I was a contributor to “The Ladder” before I
knew its history. By 1960, the year I first read it, “The Ladder”
was on Volume 5. It was published in San Francisco. How had it been
distributed to a magazine store in New York? Of course, we were still
children and adults ran the world, even our world. We might question
and defy authority, but the magazine was a product of adults and
whatever magic they supplied to make things work. I was in awe.
Today, “The Ladder” might look like
a dinky little magazine. In 1955, when they first achieved this
marvel, it must have represented a logistical obstacle course for Del
and Phyllis, whose activism consisted of much more than the printed
word. Like so many lesbian projects right up to the present day, the
work they and their cohorts produced was all volunteer. They risked
loss of their jobs, their birth families, their lovers, their homes,
their very sanity, to assert the legitimacy of our condemned lives.
There was nothing dinky about that magazine, or the men’s
equivalent, “One.” Both periodicals were powder kegs fueling what
was to become the gay rights movement, a movement that changed
government, schools, religious institutions, the military, and the
lives of fearful, confused, often self-hating individuals who found
our way to fuller lives and healthier psyches.
Phyllis Lyon made a profound difference
in my life. It was due to Phyllis that I survived my otherwise
unguided, unmodeled teens. It was due to Phyllis I was able to resist
the course of conversion therapy (not called that then) my college
unofficially required of me. It was due to Phyllis that an outlet
existed for my words. It was due to Phyllis and her union with Del
that I saw I could commit to a woman I loved and stay for better or
worse. It was due to the tenacity and victories of Phyllis Lyon and
our other giants that I lived to embrace who I am because she so
publicly embraced who she was.
So yes, my sailor friend, let’s just
say she made it possible for me to be a very happy, stable,
exultantly married woman and published lesbian writer today. I am one
of her accomplishments. I hope she was just as proud of me as I’ve
always been of her.
[Editor's Note: Lee Lynch is the author
of over 13 books. Her latest, Rainbow Gap, is available at
Books. You can reach Lynch at LeeLynch@ontopmag.com]
Copyright 2020 Lee Lynch.