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Civil rights pioneer and face of gay marriage dies at 95

Phyllis Lyon and her longtime partner Del Martin were among the first same-sex couples to marry in California when it became legal to do so in 2008.

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Phyllis Lyon, left, and her partner Del Martin, at their home in San Francisco (Eric Risberg/AP)

Phyllis Lyon, left, and her partner Del Martin, at their home in San Francisco (Eric Risberg/AP)

Phyllis Lyon, left, and her partner Del Martin, at their home in San Francisco (Eric Risberg/AP)

Gay rights pioneer Phyllis Lyon, who with her longtime partner was among the first same-sex couples to marry in California when it became legal to do so in 2008, has died at her San Francisco home at the age of 95.

Ms Lyon lived life with “joy and wonder”, said Kate Kendell, a friend and former executive director of the National Centre for Lesbian Rights.

She said Ms Lyon and her wife, Del Martin, were activists and mentors long before there was a movement or community.

“Before cellphones they always had their phone number listed in the phone book in case any young or terrified LGBTQ person needed help or support,” she said. “And they fielded dozens of calls over the years.”

Ms Lyon died on Thursday of natural causes, Ms Kendell said.

Ms Lyon was a journalist who met her lifelong love, Ms Martin, while working at a magazine in Seattle. The couple moved to San Francisco in 1953.

They co-founded with other lesbian couples the Daughters of Bilitis, a political and social organisation for lesbians. They published a national monthly for lesbians and, in 1972, a book called Lesbian/Woman.

California Governor Gavin Newsom referred to Ms Lyon’s death during his daily briefing on the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, calling her one of his heroes.

Mr Newsom was the newly elected mayor of San Francisco in 2004 when he decided to challenge California’s marriage laws by issuing licences to same-sex couples. His advisers and gay rights advocates had the perfect couple in mind to be the public face of the movement.

Ms Lyon and Ms Martin, who had by then been together for more than 50 years, were secretly swept into the clerk’s office. They exchanged vows before a tiny group of city staff members and friends, according to a 2008 Associated Press story. Afterwards they went to lunch, just the two of them.

“Of course, nobody down there knew, so we were left to be by ourselves like we wanted to be,” Ms Martin said. “Then we came home.”

“And watched TV,” added Ms Lyon.

A wedding portrait of the couple cradling each other in pastel-coloured trouser suits with their foreheads touching drew worldwide attention.

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Del Martin, left, gives Phyllis Lyon a ring during their wedding ceremony officiated by then-San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, centre, at City Hall (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Del Martin, left, gives Phyllis Lyon a ring during their wedding ceremony officiated by then-San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, centre, at City Hall (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

AP/PA Images

Del Martin, left, gives Phyllis Lyon a ring during their wedding ceremony officiated by then-San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, centre, at City Hall (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Later that year, the state Supreme Court voided the unions before overturning the state’s ban on gay marriage in 2008. They married again, among the first couples to do so in the state. Ms Martin died weeks after their second wedding, aged 87.

Ms Lyon said at the time: “I am devastated to lose Del, but I take some solace in knowing we were able to enjoy the ultimate rite of love and commitment before she passed.”

In 2015, the USSupreme Court legalised gay marriage.

California’s political leaders expressed their sorrow on Thursday and thanked Ms Lyon – and her late wife – for their tireless efforts to make the city a better place.

“All those who were blessed to know Phyllis and Del remember the extraordinary love that they had for each other,” said US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is from San Francisco.

“As we mourn the loss of our dear Phyllis, we find peace in knowing that she and Del are together again.”

Phyllis Lyon was born on November 10 1924, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She grew up in Sacramento, California, and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was editor of the heralded Daily Californian newspaper.

She was a police reporter in Fresno and a reporter at the Chico Enterprise-Record during the 1940s, according to Ms Kendell.

Family and friends are planning a celebration of her life.

PA