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Same-sex marriage pioneer Del Martin dies at 87

by Roger Brigham
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Aug 27, 2008

Del Martin, a longtime advocate and activist for the LGBT community whose lawsuit for the right to marry her partner of 55 years led to this year's historic state Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriage, died Wednesday in San Francisco, Phyllis Lyon, her lifelong partner and spouse and fellow activists, was by her side. Martin and Lyon were married in San Francisco this year on June 16, after 55 years together. She was 87.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom orderd flags at San Francisco City Hall flown halfmast through Thursday.

"For over half a century, Del Martin, along with her loving spouse, Phyllis Lyon, served as an activist for women's rights and the LGBT community," Newsom said. "Themarriage of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon on June 16, 2008, marked an historic milestone on our country's road to true freedom and equality. Del laid the groundwork for all those who want a life of dignity, and we are forever in her debt. The greatest way we can honor the life work of Del Martin, is to continue to fight and never give up, until we have achieved equality for all.

"Our deepest sympathies go out to Del's family, her spouse, Phyllis, her daughter, Kendra, and all those who mourn the loss of this great and pioneering woman."

"We are saddened to lose such a wonderful friend to our community and our love goes out to Phyllis and her family during this most difficult time," said Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors. "We would not be at this incredible moment in history, where all couples have equal rights under California law, if it had not been for Del's lifetime of courage and leadership. Our community will forever honor her life and legacy."

EQCA honored Del and Phyllis with the Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon Marriage Equality Award in 2003, an award the organization gives every year in their honor.

"Del and Phyllis reflect everything that marriage represents--lifelong commitment and everlasting love," said Molly McKay, Marriage Equality USA Media Director. "Our hearts go out to Phyllis in this difficult time. And in Del's memory, we will redouble our efforts to fight for the freedom to marry so that all couples, like Phyllis and Del, get the same dignity and respect that only marriage can provide."

Gifts in lieu of flowers can be made to honor Del's life and commitment and to defeat the California marriage ban through the National Center for Lesbian Rights NO on 8 committee at

Martin was born in San Francisco on May 5, 1921 as Dorothy L. Taliaferro. Known to classmates as Del, she was the salutatorian of the first graduating class of Washington High School. She studied journalism at UC Berkeley, then at the age of 19 transferred to San Francisco State College and married James Martin. Two years later she gave birth to her daughter, Kendra, but the marriage ended in divorce.

While both were working for a publications firm in Seattle in 1950, Martin and Lyon met and their enduring relationship began shortly thereafter in 1952. In 1953 they moved to San Francisco and formalized their relationship on Valentine's Day.

In 1956 with six other lesbians they co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), naming the organization after a little known book of lesbian love poems. The group started off focused on local social support but grew to become the first public and political lesbian rights organization in the country.

As the first President of DOB, Martin wrote, "Nothing was ever accomplished by hiding in a dark corner. Why not discard the hermitage for the heritage that awaits any red-blooded American woman who dares to claim it?"

She succeeded her partner as editor of the organization's newsletter, The Ladder in 1960. Martin's writing in The Ladder included short stories and editorials, most memorable being her "If That's All There Is" denouncement of sexism within the gay rights movement.

’Today the LGBT movement lost a real hero.’

In 1964, Del Martin helped found the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, which lobbied lawmakers to curtail police harassment and decriminalize homosexuality. Later she helped found the Lesbian Mother's Union, the San Francisco Women's Centers and the Bay Area Women's Coalition.

"Lesbian/Woman," which Martin and Lyon co-authored, described knowledgeably and articulately lesbian lives; Publishers Weekly chose it in 1992 as one of the 20 most influential women's books of the previous 20 years.

She and Lyon were co-founders of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the first gay political club in the United States. Martin was named Chair of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women in 1976 and served on the committee until 1979. She worked as a member of many other councils and boards including the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. Throughout the years, many politicians recognized their stature as community leaders and sought advice and endorsement from Martin and Lyon.

Honors and Struggles

For many years, Del Martin was a leader in the campaign to persuade the American Psychiatric Association to declare that homosexuality was not a mental illness. This goal was finally achieved in 1973.

Del Martin's publication of "Battered Wives" in 1976 was a major catalyst for the movement against domestic violence. Martin co-founded the Coalition for Justice for Battered Women (1975), La Casa de las Madres (a shelter for battered women) in 1976, and the California Coalition against Domestic Violence (1977).

In 1979, local health care providers established a clinic to give lesbians in the San Francisco Bay area access to nonjudgmental, affordable health care and named it Lyon-Martin Health Services. In 1990, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California awarded the couple with its highest honor, the Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award.

In 1995, Senator Dianne Feinstein named Martin, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (now speaker of the House of Representatives) named Lyon, as delegates to the White House Conference on Aging, where they made headlines by using their moment at the podium to remind the 125,000 attendees that LGBT people grow old, too, and must be included explicitly in aging policies.

The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality gave Martin and Lyon their Outstanding Public Service Award in 1996. They are among the most beloved figures in the LGBT community and have served as Grand Marshals at Pride marches across the nation and been honored by every major LGBT organization in the country.

Del Martin identified her own legacy in 1984 when she said that her most important contribution was "being able to help make changes in the way lesbians and gay men view themselves and how the larger society views lesbians and gay men."

"Del lived her life with great compassion, wit, tenacity, generosity, and valor," said Donna Hitchens, Founder of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "She inspired thousands of us to be more courageous and energetic than we thought possible. When faced with moments of fatigue, laziness or weakness, one had only to ask 'What would Del and Phyllis do?' While she will be greatly missed, her legacy will be cherished forever."

"Today the LGBT movement lost a real hero," said Kate Kendell, Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "For all of Del's life, she was an activist and organizer even before we knew what those terms meant. Her last act of public activism was her most personal--marrying the love of her life after 55 years."

"Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon have been an inspiration in my life and work for years," said People For the American Way President Kathryn Kolbert in a statement. "In July, I had the great honor of meeting Phyllis and presenting her with a book containing more than 8,000 congratulatory wedding messages from People For the American Way members."

Roger Brigham, a freelance writer and communications consultant, is the San Francisco Editor of EDGE. He lives in Oakland with his husband, Eduardo.


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