No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (2003)

No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (Directed by Joan E Biren, 2003) In February 2004 Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the first ladies of lesbian activism, married in San Francisco, becoming the first same-sex couple to have their marriage recognized by the state. But their marriage was short-lived; California’s Supreme Court overturned their marriage, as well as some 4000 other same-sex marriages. Martin and Lyon had been partners for over 50 years—their marriage lasted 7 months. Today, Martin and Lyon, both in their 80s, are still together and live in the modest San Francisco home they have shared for half a century.

This is a visual love letter to two of the most influential women of the second half of the twentieth century. As the co-founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, Martin and Lyon were active in the homophile movement since its early years in the 1950s. These two women have spent their lives fighting for, among other numerous social justice causes, GBLT and women’s rights. Their resumes read like a veritable laundry list of the most important social movements of the 20th century.

Joan Biren’s long career as a photographer and documentarian of the women’s movement and the GBLT movement serves her well in this project. She brings to her film the passion of a participant in her subjects’ lives. While this might make for a more biased gaze than a stranger’s, it does not take away from the power of her film. Biren artfully blends biography with historical narrative, revealing the political and historical relationship between Martin and Lyon as well as their intimate one. No Secret Anymore provides a loving, if not critical, look at the couple’s long journey through the fires of homophobic hell to the elder stateswomen of lesbian rights.

The film begins with a look at the freedoms that GBLT people enjoy today and then juxtaposes those with the early memories of Martin and Lyon and the repressive homophobic world in which they came of age as lesbians. Martin and Lyon met in the early 1950s and formed the tightly-knot bond they share to this day. What was missing was a circle of friends and social life. Enter the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). DOB began life as a secret social club for lesbians but evolved into a group for political activism that encouraged self-acceptance and education. Closely linked with the male homophile movement of the era, DOB focused on changing society’s perception of homosexuals. The magazine’s publication, The Ladder, became the lifeline for thousands of lesbians suffering in silence and isolation over their sexual orientation and its condemnation.

As part of the larger movement, DOB suffered the sexism inherent in the fight for gay rights. Gay men, it seemed, were no more willing than straight men to understand the rights and needs of their sisters. Martin and Lyon abandoned the larger male movement and aligned themselves with the burgeoning feminist movement of the 1960s. But that too proved problematic. While the feminist movement addressed their concerns as women, it did not address their lesbianism. Indeed, the homophobia of Friedan and the National Organization for Women (NOW) in the early years inflicted pain and isolation for their lesbian members.
However, the homophobia of NOW and the movement was short-lived and lesbian rights became part of the movement’s agenda as it recognized sexual orientation as a women’s rights issue.

Through the lives of Martin and Lyon No Secret Anymore provides a good overview of the evolution of GBLT life from the 1950s to the 21st century. Their activism provides a narrative of many of the movements of the century. Martin and Lyons were not, and are not, single-issue activists. Indeed, Martin wrote of the earliest books on domestic battering and abuse. Together they have been a part of every major issue of social justice—racism, poverty, classism, sexism—you name it. While this in itself is reason enough to pay homage to Martin and Lyon—there is more to their legacy. What they have given the GBLT community, especially the lesbian community, is the example of lives well-lived—and well-loved, and it is in this area that Biren’s efforts pay off.

Biren has managed to capture the playful and loving women that Martin and Lyons are. Her gaze allows us to see these icons in a very human way. They are two women who have spent their lives loving one another in dignity, and they just happen to be activists. Martin and Lyon come across as anybody’s grandmothers and their gentle teasing reveals the depth of their love and their admiration for one another. No Secret Anymore is above all a love story.

No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon makes an excellent addition to the classroom. It’s versatility as a
source for American history, women’s history, GBLT history and queer studies provides a wide range of students with an intimate look at the agency of two ordinary women whose extraordinary courage and actions have helped change the world.
Ann Marie Nicolosi The College of New Jersey nicolosi@tcnj.edu

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