Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin founded The Ladder, a legendary publication that, according to historian John D’Emilio, “offered American lesbians, for the first time in history, the opportunity to speak with their own voices.”
The two journalists, who also were — and still are — life partners, took the first of their many political stands as editors when they adopted the style of capitalizing the word “Lesbian” whenever it appeared. Their editorials, beginning with a series of rhetorical questions in the debut issue in 1956, consistently prodded lesbians to galvanize into a collective political force: “What will be the lot of the future Lesbian? Fear? Scorn? This need not be — if lethargy is supplanted by an energized constructive program, if cowardice gives way to the solidarity of a cooperative front.”
Early articles that appeared in The Ladder campaigned for lesbian and gay rights. One proposed that same-sex couples be allowed to file joint tax returns; another urged such couples to demand joint home insurance policies.
The pioneering journalists took another unprecedented step in 1958, when they created the first comprehensive profile of the American lesbian. After sending a questionnaire to the magazine’s 500 subscribers, they compiled and published the data to create a composite snapshot that was both fascinating and flattering. During a time when only 6 percent of American women had graduated from college, 46 percent of the women responding to the survey held college degrees.
Lyon and Martin paid a high price for their bold journalistic advances. FBI agents conducted background investigations on them that included contacting their employers and identifying the two women as lesbians. Lyon and Martin also routinely received telephone death threats; Lyon is convinced the unidentified callers were FBI agents.
Martin and Lyon were married June 16, 2008, at San Francisco City Hall, becoming the first same-sex couple to legally wed in the city.
Del Martin died Wednesday, August 27, in San Francisco.