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San Francisco Makes Home of Lesbian Couple a Landmark


The home of the first same-sex couple to legally marry in California will become a historical landmark, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors ruled this week.

On Tuesday, the city’s supervisors voted unanimously to grant landmark designation for the home owned by the couple, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who are both lesbian activists and co-founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organization in the United States.

The board will review the measure again on May 11 before sending it to the city’s mayor, London Breed, for approval.

Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin purchased the home, along with the vacant lot next to it, in 1955 and moved in together at the one-bedroom house nestled on a hilltop in the Noe Valley neighborhood.

The approximately 800-square-foot home was an integral meeting place for the Daughters of Bilitis and for social events within the lesbian community, according to Donna J. Graves and Shayne E. Watson, two historians who wrote a city-planning document in 2015 for San Francisco on its L.G.B.T.Q. history.

“Especially in the early years of lesbian organizing, it was in the homes that people met and got to know each other and organized,” Ms. Graves, a public historian, said.

Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin also worked in their community, pushing for medical care sites for L.G.B.T.Q. people and, with Glide Memorial Church, advocating on behalf of homeless L.G.B.T.Q. youth.

Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin were editors of the Daughters of Bilitis’ publication, The Ladder, and they used their home as their work space. In 1972, their book “Lesbian/Woman,” was published and has since become regarded as a fundamental text on lesbian feminism.

A home or building receiving local landmark designation tends to have more weight compared with those that have national distinctions, Ms. Graves said.

“Local landmark status is the designation that has the most protection, teeth so to say, of any level of preservation designation,” Ms. Graves said, noting that the status affects potential alterations and reviews. “The national register, in some ways, is more honorific.”

After Ms. Lyon’s death last year, the home was left to Ms. Martin’s daughter Kendra, The San Francisco Chronicle reported, and it was eventually sold to a new owner. The current owner of the home did not return a request for comment.

Ms. Watson, an architectural historian, said when she learned in September that the home was sold, she wanted to do something to ensure it was historically preserved. (In 2012, she met Ms. Lyon at an event and later proposed nominating her home for the National Register for Historic Places. Ms. Lyon turned down the offer at the time, she said.)

Terry Beswick, the executive director of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, said Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin were considered “iconic figures” to activists like himself and others who came up in the 1980s and ’90s.

“I’m just really glad that we’re making this sort of permanent recognition of them,” he said.

Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin met at a construction trade journal in Seattle after Ms. Lyon moved to Washington State in 1949. They started dating, and in 1953 they moved together into an apartment in San Francisco.

They first had a wedding in 2004, when the mayor at the time, Gavin Newsom, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Their marriage was later invalidated, however, because of a ruling from the California Supreme Court that voided Mr. Newsom’s decision.

It wasn’t until May 2008, when the state court declared same-sex marriage legal, that Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin, together for more than half a century, were able to marry officially. They married in June of that year at San Francisco City Hall, with Mr. Newsom again officiating. Ms. Martin died in August 2008, at 87, and Ms. Lyon died in April 2020 at age 95.

Pending official landmark status, Mr. Beswick said he would like to see the couple’s home become a sort of residency space for graduate students.

“You really can’t overstate the impact they’ve had on so many causes,” Mr. Beswick said of Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin.

He and some community members, including Ms. Watson, would like to see the home become a hub for lesbian history, women’s rights and social justice activism in the spirit of Ms. Lyon and Ms. Martin.

“I want this house to continue the work that was being done there from 1955 to 2020,” Ms. Watson said.

Mayor Breed’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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