Just As I Thought

Del Martin

Phyllis Lyon, right, and Del Martin cut their wedding cake in June. Photo by Noah Berger, special to the San Francisco Chronicle

Lesbian rights pioneer Del Martin dies
Rachel Gordon, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

(08-27) 14:37 PDT SAN FRANCISCO — Del Martin, a lesbian rights pioneer who took part in one of California’s first same-sex weddings, died today in San Francisco after a long period of declining health. She was 87.

Ms. Martin’s political activism began more than five decades ago when in 1955 she co-founded a ground-breaking lesbian rights organization, Daughters of Bilitis, named after a book of lesbian love poetry. On June 16, she and her partner of 55 years, Phyllis Lyon, were married at San Francisco City Hall by Mayor Gavin Newsom.

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

Ms. Martin died this morning at UCSF Hospice, nearly two weeks after she was admitted with a broken arm.

“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 said in a statement issued by the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “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.”

Ms. Martin had been in ailing 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 wed, 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 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. Lyon and Lyon were the first of some 4,000 same-sex couples to wed. 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 on Market Streets to be flown at half-staff until sunset Thursday.

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 of 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.

Ms. Martin, whose given name was Dorothy but who went by Del, was born in San Francisco on May 5, 1921. Her first marriage, at age 19, was brief, but produced a daughter, Kendra Mon, who lives in Petaluma. She is also survived by two grandchildren.

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

Del Martin’s life spanned an amazing societal change, and she was instrumental in shaping that change. I have lived a life significantly devoid of direct discrimination because of brave pioneers, activists like Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon who not only spoke up, but lived their lives defiantly. All of us, gay or straight, owe them both a debt of gratitude for changing the world.

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