In 1977, Patty Robertson was working as a resident physician in the obstetrics and gynecology program at the University of California, San Francisco. One night when working on her gynecology rotation at San Francisco General, she was called to the Emergency Room to see a lesbian patient who had pelvic pain. One of the possible diagnoses was pelvic inflammatory disease, but in discussing the case with the surgery resident, neither knew if lesbians could actually get sexually transmitted diseases which could lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, or if lesbians could pass sexually transmitted diseases to female partners.
Patty decided to put together a pilot study on lesbians and sexually transmitted diseases. She got permission from Dr. Richard Sweet, who ran the Department of OB-GYN at SFGH at the time, to use the Women’s Clinic in the evenings. There was no money to run the study, so it was done completely with volunteers and donations of culture media from Dr. Julius Schachter and others. Patty asked her close friends to help her pull off the project: Sherron Mills, nurse practitioner who was working in the Employee Health Clinic at SFGH; and Alana Schilling, who was working for the Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Parnassus campus.
Patty also recruited her co-residents to help with the project which included Risa Kagan, MD and Margaret Chen, MD . Eileen Teitle, a nurse practitioner who was working at the time on a clinical research grant with Dr. Richard Sweet, also participated in the project. Doreena Wong and Alison Hawthorne volunteered as intake workers for the lesbians attending the clinic, and remained committed volunteers with the Lyon-Martin Women’s Health Service that developed as a result of the study.
In order to get the word out about the study (no email at that time) that this clinic was available to lesbians, we distributed flyers at Women’s Music Concerts, Artemis (a lesbian owned café onValencia Street), and the Women’s Building.
Patty and her partner Lesley Anderson, MD volunteered their home answering machine for patients to leave messages so that we could set up the appointment times, and also their living room for storage of patient charts.
Halfway through the study, the Director of the Women’s Clinic returned from sabbatical and was shocked to find that lesbians were using “his” clinic in the evening. He ordered the study stopped. With the support of Dr. Richard Sweet, the Division Chair at SFGH, the study was moved to the Family Planning Clinic downstairs in the evening (the clinic organizers considered putting a blanket over the “Family Planning” sign when their evening lesbian clinic was in session, so lesbians would feel comfortable, but they never did and the lesbians coped!).
There was an overwhelming response to the flyers. Over 200 lesbians were seen in the clinic during the study in 1978, at which time they filled out an extensive questionnaire about their sexual history and received a screening health exam and blood tests.
To be formally included in the study, it was decided that the definition of a lesbian for purposes of the study, was a sexually active lesbian with women only in the preceding 6 months. Each patient had cervical cultures for Chlamydia, Herpes, gonorrhea, and a blood test for syphilis, as well as a Pap smear. No cases of syphilis, gonorrhea, active Herpes or Chlamydia were detected, although 11.5% of the women had a history of gonorrhea, 7.4% had a history of genital herpes, and 2 lesbians had a history of syphilis.
The study did find an increased number of abnormal pap smears, most likely because lesbians delayed getting their pap smears (average interval between Pap smears was 21 months for the lesbians in the study, versus 8 months for the women attending the Family Planning Clinic).
Of the 148 patients who were eligible for the study, the average age was 28 years (from 17 years to 51 years), 92% were Caucasian, 53% had one partner only, mean number of partners was 2.3 in the prior year (ranged from 1 – 30), 89% had previous intercourse with men, and 95.5% were employed.
After analyzing the results of the study, Patty Robertson MD wrote and published a scientific paper with Julian Schacter PhD about the results. The initial paper, which was much more robust with data regarding frequency of sexual abuse, etc., was turned down by the Journal of the American Medical Association. The paper was then submitted to and accepted by the Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (Volume 8, No.2, 75-76), although the data was cut down to focus on the sexually transmitted disease aspect. Patty Robertson MD is now a faculty member in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Services at UCSF, Co-Director of the Center for Lesbian Health Research at UCSF, and practices perinatology (high-risk obstetrics) there.
The overwhelming response of lesbians to this opportunity for health care while enrolling in the study indicated a strong need for a clinic to provide health care for lesbians who were not accessing the health care system due to possible homophobia, ignorance, discrimination or intimidation.
Birth of Lyon-Martin Women’s Health Services
The volunteers were committed to establishing a lesbian health service to provide quality, affordable, nonjudgmental comprehensive health care and health education for lesbians. While sitting in Sherron Mills and her partner Maureen’s home, Patty, Sherron, Alana, and Eileen met to create a name for the lesbian health service. We threw out names such as Gertrude Stein or Alice B. Toklas. Maureen offered that we should name it after Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, lesbian activists in the city of San Francisco. We obtained permission from Del and Phyllis to use their names.
A non-profit corporation, Women’s Alternative Health Service, was founded by the principles, Sherron Mills, Patty Robertson and Alana Schilling. The women served on the clinic’s first Board of Directors, Sherron Mills, NP becoming the first Executive Director of Lyon-Martin, and immediately set out to raise money and support for Lyon-Martin. In 1979, a benefit concert was given at the Women’s building on 18th Street by songwriters/musician Margie Adam and Robin Flowers as well as lesbian comedian Robin Tyler.
Lyon-Martin netted $500 from the concert and with those proceeds and a space found at the San Francisco Public Center, the clinic opened its doors in February of 1980, operating two evenings per week with an all-volunteer staff.
The volunteers, Doreena Wong, Alison Hawthorne, Maribeth Hight, RN, Risa Kagan MD, Kathy Patterson, NP, Eileen Teitle, NP, Sadja Greenwood MD, Elizabeth Kantor MD, Lisa Capaldini MD, Sandra Gove MD, Lesley Anderson MD, among others, gave their time two evenings per week, to make this health care possible. The clinic was filled to capacity immediately. After several months, it became clear that a full-time clinic was needed in order to provide continuity of care and adequate follow-up of the diverse medical problems seen in the patients. A permanent space was sought and found on Fillmore Street, where Lyon-Martin began operating 5 days, plus two evenings per week, with both paid and volunteer staffing.
After 2 ½ years on Fillmore, Lyon-Martin again outgrew its space and relocated to Mission Street in the Los Portales Medical Building. Several years later, Lyon-Martin moved to Market Street where it operated until late 2017.
Through the years, Liz Kantor MD, Stephanie Roberts MD, Lisa Pratt MD, and Dawn Harbatkin MD served as Medical Directors of Lyon Martin, continuing the important work of delivering medical care to lesbians and other women in San Francisco. Sherron Mills, NP served as Executive Director for many years, and afterwards founded Pacific Reproductive Services Sperm Bank & Insemination Services in San Francisco and Los Angeles, which was founded in 1984 specifically to serve lesbians. Alana Schilling continued to work at UCSF and is a currently a Senior Research Administrator there in the Department of Orofacial Sciences.
It is clear that Lyon-Martin has been on the cutting edge of lesbian health care since its founding. Today, Lyon-Martin Health Services continues to provide care to lesbians, bisexual women, women of color, low-income women, older women, women with disabilities & transgender people. Lyon-Martin has also been at the forefront of educating other medical providers in lesbian and transgender health care issues, and assumes a position of national prominence in the area of LGBT health care.
We faced an organizational crisis in 2011 when it was revealed that significant debt threatened to close the organization. New management and a new Board of Directors worked tirelessly to make necessary changes and rebuild our viability. Despite these efforts and a remarkable outpouring of support from the community, numerous challenges such as changes to a city contract, the sale of the building which houses us, and increasing administrative and regulatory burdens required a new approach.
On March 1st, 2015 Lyon-Martin merged with HealthRIGHT 360—a family of health centers and behavioral health programs serving communities throughout California. The partnership enables both organizations to maintain and expand culturally competent primary care and behavioral health services to women, queer and transgender people.While preserving each organization’s unique specializations and orientation to care, the strategic alliance bolsters both groups in the changing landscape of healthcare under the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act. More about our merger.