By Jen Colletta
PGN Staff Writer
Longtime LGBT activist Del Martin died Aug. 27 from health complications resulting from a broken arm. She was 87.
Martin emerged as an LGBT leader in the 1950s and continued her activism up until the time of her death.
Martin and her wife, Phyllis Lyon, were the first same-sex couple to be married in California in 2004, and again were the first couple to tie the knot in the state this summer, one month after the California Supreme Court overturned a ban on same-sex marriage.
“For all of Del’s life, she was an activist and organizer even before we knew what those terms meant,” said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “Her last act of public activism was her most personal – marrying the love of her life after 55 years.”
Martin was born May 5, 1921, in San Francisco. She received a degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley and met Lyon in 1950 while both were working at a magazine in Seattle.
The two became a couple in 1952 and three years later joined with a group of other out women to form the Daughters of Bilitis, the first social and political lesbian organization in the country.
Lyon served as the first editor of the DOB’s newsletter, “The Ladder,” a position that Martin took over from 1960-62.
DOB chapters quickly began to open in all corners of the country, and Kay Lahusen, the partner of late lesbian activist Barbara Gittings, noted that Martin was influential in the organization’s growth.
“Del reached out to my partner Barbara to found a chapter in New York City, which she did in 1958,” Lahusen said. “The Daughters of Bilitis wasn’t nationwide at the start – it actually started in a living room in San Francisco. But thanks to Del’s vision it became nationwide.”
Martin and Lyon’s work on “The Ladder” earned them entrance into the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association’s Hall of Fame in 2005.
The DOB chapters around the country began to disband in the late 1960s and early ’70s, but Martin’s LGBT activism continued long after that time.
In 1967, Martin and Lyon became involved in the National Organization for Women, and in 1970 Martin became the first lesbian elected to NOW’s board. The following year, she was influential in the board’s passage of a resolution that stated that lesbian issues should also be considered feminist issues.
In 1964, Martin and Lyon were among the LGBT activists who formed the San Francisco Council on Religion and the Homosexual, working to reform churches’ stances on LGBT-rights issues, and the couple were also active members of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, San Francisco’s first political organization that worked to promote LGBT and allied candidates.
Martin was also a strong advocate against domestic violence; she was a founding member of the San Francisco Women’s Centers, Coalition for Justice for Battered Women, California Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Bay Area Women’s Coalition, and published the book “Battered Wives” in 1976.
Martin and Lyon also co-authored “Lesbian/Woman” in 1972, which Publisher’s Weekly named in 1992 as one of the “20 Most Influential Books of the Last 20 Years.”
In 1979, a group of California doctors and health activists founded a health clinic for lesbians and named it Lyon-Martin Health Services; today the clinic provides healthcare services to about 2,000 patients per year.
In 1995, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) named Martin and Lyon as delegates to the White House Conference on Aging.
The couple’s decades of LGBT activism were the subject of a 2003 film by director Joan E. Biren, titled “No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.”
Martin and Lyon made international headlines, Feb. 12, 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom performed a wedding ceremony for the couple as part of his unexpected directive to the city to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
For about a month, the city issued approximately 4,000 licenses to gay and lesbian couples, but all of them, including Martin and Lyon’s, were declared null and void that August, when the California Supreme Court ruled that Newsom did not have the authority to order such a directive.
At the time of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Lyon made a poignant comment: “Del is 83 years old and I am 79. After being together for more than 50 years, it is a terrible blow to have the rights and protections of marriage taken away from us. At our age, we do not have the luxury of time.”
Martin and Lyon became plaintiffs in a suit against the state, and on May 15 of this year the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s existing statutes that banned same-sex marriage.
Newsom again married Martin and Lyon on June 16, the first day the new laws went into effect.
Kendell noted that the most appropriate way to carry on Martin’s memory would be to continue to fight against a proposed constitutional amendment in California, which would again nullify Martin and Lyon’s nuptials.
“In the wake of losing her, we recognize with heightened clarity the most poignant and responsible way to honor her legacy is to preserve the right of marriage for same-sex couples, thereby providing the dignity and respect that Del and Phyllis’ love deserved,” Kendell said.
In a statement released the day of Martin’s death, Lyon expressed her grief over her wife’s passing as well as her gratitude for their opportunity to wed.
“Ever since I met Del 55 years ago, I could never imagine a day would come when she wouldn’t be by my side. I am so lucky to have known her, loved her and been her partner in all things,” Lyon said. “I also never imagined there would be a day that we would actually be able to get married. 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.”
Gifts can be made in Martin’s name to fight Proposition 8 – the proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage in California – through the National Center for Lesbian Rights at http://www.nclrights.org/NoOn8.
A memorial service to honor Martin’s life will be held in the next several weeks.