Del Martin – A Pioneer in Lesbian Rights Dies at 87

Del Martin died Wednesday.

Del Martin, life partner of Phyllis Lyon for 55 years, co-wrote the book Lesbian/Woman in 1972. For me, at age 22, this book was the proverbial life preserver tossed to me in turbulent seas. Although I knew I was a Lesbian much earlier in my life, being comfortable with that fact was another story.

When I found Lesbian/Woman and began reading it, I laughed, I cried, but most importantly, I gained a new perspective of myself as a Lesbian: I was OKAY! I was not an abomination, nor crazy, nor perverted. I simply loved women.

I devoured that book from cover to cover. I can still see that bright purple paperback cover, dog-eared from repeated use, that I wrapped in a brown grocery bag cover to hide from my parents. Years later, I managed to acquire a special 25th anniversary hardbound edition. It’s something I treasure.

Del Martin’s “outness” gave me courage. She inspired me with compassion and intellect. By the example of her own very public relationship with her Lesbian partner, Phyllis Lyon, she inspired us all to know that we did indeed deserve all the happiness, fulfillment, and rewards of a healthy relationship, just like anybody else!

She got to marry her beloved two months ago courtesy of California’s new Law approving gay marriage.

As a pillar of Lesbian activism, she will be sorely missed. My heart goes out to Phyllis and all of Del’s close friends and family.

We celebrate her accomplishments in her time with us. We celebrate the freedoms we enjoy today because of staunch Lesbian and Gay Rights advocates such as herself.

In Loving Memory, -MsQueer

©2008 MsQueer.com and Deborah Adler. All rights reserved.

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Lesbian rights pioneer Del Martin dies at 87

Thursday, August 28, 2008

(08-27) 14:57 PDT SAN FRANCISCO — Lesbian rights pioneer Del Martin, whose trailblazing activism spanned more than five decades, most recently in the battle for same-sex marriage, died Wednesday, just two months after she made history again by wedding her longtime partner in San Francisco City Hall.

Ms. Martin, an author and organizer, died at UCSF Hospice after a long period of declining health. She was 87 and was admitted to the hospital nearly two weeks ago with a broken arm.

Ms. Martin’s crusading began in 1955, during an era in America known more for social conformity than for rebellion, when she co-founded a lesbian social-turned-political organization, Daughters of Bilitis, named after a 19th century book of lesbian love poetry.

This year, on June 16, she and her partner of 55 years, Phyllis Lyon, were legally wed. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom officiated. Theirs was among the first same-sex nuptials in California.

“Her last act of activism was her most personal – marrying the love of her life,” said Kate Kendell, a longtime friend of the couple and executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

“Ever since I met Del 55 years ago, I could never imagine a day would come when she wouldn’t be by my side,” Lyon, 83, said in a statement. “I am so lucky to have known her, loved her and been her partner in all things.

“I also never imagined there would be a day that we would actually be able to get married,” Lyon said. “I am devastated, but I take some solace in knowing we were able to enjoy the ultimate rite of love and commitment before she passed.”

‘We’re not getting younger’

Ms. Martin had been in failing health for some time, weakened to the point where she was pushed in a wheelchair to her wedding ceremony. In an interview in her hillside Noe Valley home just days before she took her marriage vows in the mayor’s office, Ms. Martin described as fortunate the timing of the California Supreme Court decision that gave gays and lesbians the right to marry.

“We’re not getting younger,” she said.

Ms. Martin and Lyon were plaintiffs in the lawsuit that got the state ban on same-sex marriage lifted. They were married at 5:07 p.m, just minutes after the ruling took effect.

Four years ago, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom allowed marriage licenses to be issued to gay and lesbian couples in San Francisco in defiance of state law, Ms. Martin and Lyon were the first of about 4,000 same-sex couples to wed and made news internationally. Those marriages were later nullified by the state’s high court but paved the way for the successful legal challenge.

“We would never have marriage equality in California if it weren’t for Del and Phyllis,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat. “They fought and triumphed in many battles, beginning when they first bought a home together in San Francisco in 1955.”

Pelosi called the death of Ms. Martin “a great loss for me personally and for our entire community.”

Newsom, who said Ms. Martin “laid the groundwork for all those who want a life of dignity,” ordered the flags at City Hall and the rainbow gay-pride flag at Market and Castro streets to be flown at half-staff until sunset today.

Ms. Martin’s activist reach extended into the feminist movement when she became the first open lesbian to serve on the board of directors of the National Organization for Women, and she helped spearhead a successful campaign to get the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its roster of mental illnesses.

In 1995, Sen. Dianne Feinstein named her as a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging, where she and Lyon, a delegate appointed by Pelosi, focused attention on the needs of aging gays and lesbians.

Feinstein said Wednesday, “Del and Phyllis were a loving couple, cherished by an entire community. They inspired so many, young and old.”

Ms. Martin, whose given name was Dorothy but who went by Del, was born in San Francisco in 1921. Her first marriage, at age 19, was brief but produced a daughter, Kendra Mon, who lives in Petaluma. She also is survived by two grandchildren.

Together for almost 60 years

She and Lyon met in Seattle in 1950 while both were working as journalists for a trade publication. Their friendship turned into a romance two years later. In 1953, on Valentine’s Day, the couple moved into a Castro district flat in San Francisco.

After helping found the Daughters of Bilitis, they started a newsletter, called the Ladder, which grew into a magazine focused on lesbian politics and culture.

In the first issue, Ms. Martin set the tone for how she would lead the rest of her life when she 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?”

Cleve Jones took that message to heart when he met the couple in 1972. He was a student at Arizona State University, and the duo went to speak to a gay liberation organization.

“For a kid just out of high school, listening to them was a life-altering experience,” said Jones, who later moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a student intern in the City Hall office of gay Supervisor Harvey Milk and founded the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. “They were so confident, so unapologetic, so radical.”

And, added Kendell, from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, “so fearless. In every social movement, political movement, there’s someone who transcends their time. For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, Del Martin was one of those people.”

Friends and family plan to hold a public tribute to Ms. Martin in the near future. Details have not been set.

Del Martin

— 1921 – Born on May 5 in San Francisco

— 1950 – Met the love of her life, Phyllis Lyon

— 1955 – Co-founded groundbreaking lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis

— 1960 – Took over as editor of the Ladder, a monthly lesbian magazine

— 1964 – Helped found the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, formed to overturn laws that criminalized homosexual behavior

— 1972 – Co-wrote with Lyon the book “Lesbian/Woman”

— 1972 – Co-founded with Lyon the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the first gay political club in the United States

— 1976 – Published the book “Battered Wives,” which focused on domestic violence

— 1976 – Appointed chairwoman of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women

— 1995 – Served as a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging

— 2004 – Wed Lyon in the first of about 4,000 same-sex weddings sanctioned by San Francisco but later ruled invalid by the California Supreme Court

— 2008 – On June 16, married Lyon again, this time with the blessing of the state Supreme Court, which found the state ban on same-sex marriage illegal

E-mail Rachel Gordon at rgordon@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

NOW Mourns Passing of Longtime NOW and Lesbian Rights Activist Del Martin

Statement of NOW President Kim Gandy

August 27, 2008

 

Along with NOW activists everywhere, I am terribly saddened at the passing of longtime NOW and lesbian rights activist Del Martin. We extend our love and condolences to Del’s wife, Phyllis Lyon, who was her partner in life and in activism for more than half a century.

Del was truly an inspiration to me and to countless others who fight every day for Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender rights. Marriage equality was a passion for Del and Phyllis, and they were married not once but twice in California — most recently this June, when they became the first couple to wed after same-sex marriage became legal in the state.

Del authored the groundbreaking book Battered Wives, among many impressive accomplishments during her 87 years. Together with Phyllis, Del founded the first national lesbian rights organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, in 1955 and wrote another pivotal book, Lesbian/Woman.

At NOW’s Lesbian Rights Summit in 1999, I was honored to present Del and Phyllis with Woman of Courage Awards. They stood before a standing-room-only crowd and noted how far we’ve come as a movement; Del emphasized the need “to unite as never before and face the grip that the extreme right wing holds over our country.”

We owe a great deal to Del. She was a true pioneer who never tired, never gave up on her mission to secure full equality for each of us. Del’s work will continue to touch the lives of future generations, and her spirit will live on in the work of NOW and our allies.

NOW encourages women’s rights and LGBT advocates to submit tributes to Del Martin on our website.

 

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force mourns death of
pioneering community hero Del Martin

WASHINGTON, Aug. 27 — The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force mourns the death of Del Martin, 87, who died today in San Francisco, Calif. Martin married Phyllis Lyon, her partner of 55 years, on June 16, 2008. In 1955, the couple joined six other lesbians in founding the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco, the first lesbian rights organization in the nation. In 1997 and 2004, the Task Force honored Martin and Lyon for their decades of community service.

Statement by Rea Carey, Executive Director
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
“The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has suffered a devastating loss today with the passing of Del Martin, who was one of our movement’s most courageous and extraordinary figures. We extend our deepest sympathies to Del’s family and, especially, to her life partner and, most recently, legally wedded spouse, Phyllis Lyon.
 
“Del Martin, with Phyllis Lyon always at her side in a remarkable relationship that spanned more than five decades, dreamed a world in which sexual orientation and gender identity and expression would be accorded full dignity and respect. They spoke the unspeakable, wrote the unthinkable, and lived their lives as few before them ever had: open and proud lesbians in 1950s America.

“Del and Phyllis were inspiration in action, living openly and proudly as a loving couple long before many others felt safe to stand with them. Their love for each other gave them strength and sustained them; that same love, courage and grace have left an indelible mark on our movement, and in each of our hearts.

“Del and Phyllis have personally been an inspiration to me since I came out when I was 16 years old. In my office, a picture of the two of them looks over me as I work to carry on their work and their vision for living our lives in truth. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force will honor Del’s life by using our uncompromising voice and fighting for justice and equality — a voice made louder and stronger by her 87 years of life. Thank you, Del, for showing so many of us the way.”
More about Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon

Founding the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon launched the world’s first organization dedicated to improving the lives of lesbians. When they published The Ladder in 1956, the first magazine by, for and about lesbians, the couple created the means for lesbians to know themselves and each other and to break out of the stultifying isolation that marked many lesbian lives, inviting thousands of women to join a nascent but growing lesbian community.
 
Throughout their decades of activism, Martin and Lyon made the vital connections among communities and movements, engaging in social justice advocacy projects that included anti-war, civil rights, anti-poverty, HIV/AIDS, and women’s health and empowerment. In 1964, they participated in the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, the first organizing in this country to forge a wider space and a welcoming place for LGBT people in faith communities. 
 
In 1972, the couple published their groundbreaking book, Lesbian/Woman, named by Publisher’s Weekly in 1992 as one of the 20 most influential women’s books of the past 20 years. Lesbian/Woman spoke to a new and hungry generation of women, eager to answer their clarion call to sexual liberation and freedom. Martin was an early leader in the battered women’s movement, again breaking new ground with the publication of Battered Wives in 1976, a book that inspired grassroots organizing to end domestic violence and the establishment of shelters for battered women. 
 
Lyon-Martin Health Services, founded in 1979 in San Francisco and named in honor of Martin and Lyon, is the only free-standing community clinic in California with a specific emphasis on lesbian/bisexual women and transgender health care, delivering quality health care services regardless of ability to pay.
 
In 1995, they were appointed to the White House Conference on Aging; they continued to advocate on behalf of older lesbians through Old Lesbians Organizing for Change.
 
The valuable lives and good works of Martin and Lyon are the subject of the 2003 award-winning documentary, No Secrets Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, by filmmaker Joan E. Biren.
 
Martin and Lyon made history again, becoming the first same-sex couple to be married in the state of California on June 16, 2008.
 
In 1997, at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s 10th annual Creating Change Conference in San Diego, Calif., Martin and Lyon received the Community Service Award for their organizing work and political involvement. At the 2004 conference in St. Louis, Mo., they were honored with the Creating Change Award, which read, “You spoke the unspeakable, you wrote the unthinkable. You lived openly and proudly as a loving couple long before a movement would stand with you.”

The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the grassroots power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. We do this by training activists, equipping state and local organizations with the skills needed to organize broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movement’s premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.
© 2008 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. 1325 Massachusetts Ave NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20005. Phone 202.393.5177. Fax 202.393.2241. TTY 202.393.2284. theTaskForce@theTaskForce.org.

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4 Responses

  1. […] Excerpt from: Del Martin – A Pioneer in Lesbian Rights Dies at 87 […]

  2. Thank you Del for being a good leader, showing by example. My condolences to Del’s wife Phyllis. Thank you also Phyllis. -Salty

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