Community Voices: Preserving the Story of Lesbian Advocates Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon

June 28th, 2021 No Comments »

This piece was originally published in the July-September 2021 issue of Heritage News. Find the printed version here.


BY GRETE MILLER

Grete Miller is an award-winning filmmaker and passionate LGBTQ+ history advocate and activist. She crafts impactful media, harnesses storytelling to make the invisible, visible, and creates inclusive opportunities through creative tech. Miller is a member of the Friends of Lyon-Martin House (FOLMH), which leads a broader coalition of groups (including San Francisco Heritage) to successfully designate 651 Duncan Street, home of lesbian pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, as a city landmark. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved the landmark ordinance in May 2021. 

The exterior of the Lyon-Martin House at 651 Duncan Street, located in San Francisco’s Noe Valley district.

How did you get involved with the landmarking effort?
In September 2020 I learned about the sale of the Lyon-Martin home through a Facebook post from architectural historian Shayne Watson. Passionate about preserving LGBTQ+ history and stories, I didn’t think twice about finding a way to help this effort. After attending the first community call, I volunteered to write the first FOLMH petition to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. I created a user-friendly landing page to help with the collection of community signatures and drive awareness around Phyllis and Del’s story.

In your own words, tell us why 651 Duncan Street is so significant. Why should people care about what happened here?
The house is an important repository of significant moments that contributed to social reform and drove intersectional progressive change for marginalized communities throughout California and beyond. As a lesbian in the movement, I’m continuously inspired and in awe of my queer foremothers. Inside the walls of 651 Duncan, history was made and new leaders were born into the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Phyllis and Del organized activists to validate and decriminalize my life and the lives of many others. From inside their house, they forced the world to change and turn toward the side of justice. There is power in knowing your history and being able to touch your story. The strength of your elders teaches you what is possible, and that your life has purpose. I know that because they did, I can.

The landmarking of the Lyon-Martin House was a truly community grassroots effort. Can you describe your experience seeing different groups working together to make this happen?

It’s been an awesome collaboration. We’re working with multiple stakeholders who bring diverse expertise and perspectives to this project, and it’s marvelous! The level of care, support, and energy that people have demonstrated has been overwhelming. It is a testament to the power of communities and what we can accomplish when we come together and organize for what is right.

Is there something you’ve come across in your own research of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin and their life at 651 Duncan Street that particularly stands out to you?
Through talking with community members, I’ve become aware of the full record of Phyllis and Del’s lives. They did not lead single issue lives; their politics were coalition-based. They saw the LGBTQ+ and lesbian-rights movements as integrally interconnected with broader social-justice movements. Lyon and Martin were active in the movement for African-American civil rights and in organizing against police violence. They also worked extensively to stop domestic violence, and championed inclusion and policy reform on behalf of older adults. These women were pioneers and change-makers!

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in the living room of their home. COURTESY OF GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL, TRANSGENDER HISTORICAL SOCIETY.

Now that the house has received landmark designation, what is the first priority there? What’s the next step for Friends of the Lyon-Martin House?
Our next milestone is to digitally document the site. To mitigate the risk of losing visual data and storytelling elements, I thought it was important that we collect the visual story of the house, create an accessible digital experience for the community, and preserve that raw data for future generations. This summer FOLMH will be working with the preservation organization CyArk on this effort. We’re very excited about this collaboration and to see Phyllis and Del’s home receive this level of documentation. Afterwards, we’ll begin outlining community planning and educational programming initiatives.

Documenting the spaces of marginalized communities is vital for individuals whose stories have been forgotten, overlooked, or purposely neglected. If we can preserve not only the physical site but the full visual story and experience of iconic places like the Lyon-Martin House, decades later we will have a valuable collection of content to look back on. Each still, moving image, and 3D scan will make visible what was invisible, and preserve the source of a movement and make it accessible to others. In doing so, these mediums push back against erasure and celebrate diverse communities and people whose stories haven’t been told. It allows us to be a part of another person’s truth and grow through their incomparable contributions and legacy.

What do you personally hope for the future of this site in perpetuating the legacy of these two extraordinary women? How can others get involved?
I hope the Lyon-Martin House can serve as a safe space for LGBTQ+ creatives, social-justice activists, and students — an idea that we are still exploring. We will be researching more options in our next planning phase. It would be wonderful to see this extraordinary site carrying on the progressive advocacy work of Phyllis and Del through the hands of our future change-makers. FOLMH welcomes all volunteers! People can learn more by visiting our website or by emailing us at lyonmartinfriends@gmail.com.


Help support the next phase of work with CyArk! Click below to donate to the Lyon-Martin House Preservation Fund:

Comments are closed.