Lesbian pioneer Del Martin dies

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday August 27, 2008
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Del Martin, a pioneering lesbian activist and journalist who made history in 2004 when she and her longtime partner, Phyllis Lyon, were the first same-sex couple to marry in San Francisco, died Wednesday, August 27 at the University of California at San Francisco's Hospice with Lyon by her side.

Ms. Martin, who was born Dorothy Taliaferro on May 5, 1921, in San Francisco, was 87.

The cause of death has yet to be determined. According to friends, Ms. Martin broke her arm about a week ago and had been in the hospital's palliative care unit.

The women had remarried on June 16 this summer after spending 55 years together. Mayor Gavin Newsom performed the ceremony, which was the first in San Francisco following the California Supreme Court's decision that legalized same-sex marriage.

"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 in a statement released by the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "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."

News of Ms. Martin's death upset many in the LGBT community Wednesday.

"Del Martin slipped away from us just moments ago but her spirit and legacy will never be extinguished within the LGBT community," said out lesbian state Senator Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) in a statement. "Del and her loving, longtime partner, Phyllis Lyon, were harbingers for change and activism long before lesbian issues became au courant and socially acceptable. All people and movements in search of true liberation owe an immeasurable debt to Del Martin who, along with other early brave souls, was determined to speak out and change the world to better the plight and lives of those whose voices are not heard."

"It's the end of an era," Supervisor Tom Ammiano told the Bay Area Reporter.

Newsom learned of Ms. Martin's death as he prepared to address the LGBT Caucus at the Democratic convention in Denver. A teary-eyed Newsom said that Ms. Martin and Lyon "defined, from my perspective, what marriage was supposed to be about."

"Years ago, to put a human face on the issue of gay marriage, we called Phyllis and Del to be the test case," Newsom said. "Del Martin came to her [second] wedding in a wheelchair. Del and Phyllis were on their way to their 56th anniversary. ... We had a gift of a lifetime - to allow them both to say 'I do,' yet again."

"Del was an extraordinary woman," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said in a statement. "Her grace, courage, and commitment were a source of strength to all who knew her. My heart goes out to her wife Phyllis, who was her devoted partner for more than 50 years."

Steve Adams, president of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro, said the rainbow flag at Market and Castro streets would be flown at half-staff in Ms. Martin's honor. The flag at City Hall also will be flown at half-staff, the mayor's office said.

"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," Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors said in a statement. "We would not be at this incredible moment in our 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."

Supervisor Bevan Dufty said, "Del lived a triumphant life filled with purpose and love for Phyllis. Their courage, activism and example have changed the course of history for the LGBT community. She will always be one of our foremost heroes in the path to equality."

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama issued a statement that read: “Michelle and I were deeply saddened to hear that Del Martin had passed. Del committed her life to fighting discrimination and promoting equality. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her spouse Phyllis Lyon, and all those who were touched by her life."

Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said the nation lost a "historic human rights crusader."

"The LGBT civil rights movement is where it is today because of the bravery of Del Martin," Leno said in a statement issued late Wednesday. "She had the courage to be honest and to let the world know who she was when it wasn't accepted, protected, or even safe. My thoughts and prayers go out to Del's wife, Phyllis Lyon, her committed partner of 55 years. Together, they have not only dedicated their lives to the dream of full equality, but are directly responsible for the inclusion of a heretofore excluded minority."

"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."

Ms. Martin began working as an activist after receiving her degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. While working on a newspaper in Seattle, Martin met Lyon and the two began working on behalf of lesbians in their community. The couple devoted their lives to working toward LGBT equality, health care access, advocacy on behalf of battered women, and issues facing elderly Americans.

Their many contributions over the past five decades are credited with shaping the modern LGBT movement.

In 1955, Lyon and Martin were among the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organization. In 1956, they launched The Ladder, the first lesbian newsletter, which became a lifeline for hundreds of women isolated and silenced by the restrictions of the era. Three years ago they were inducted into the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's LGBT Journalists Hall of Fame.

Ms. Martin was the first openly lesbian woman elected to the board of the National Organization for Women, and in 1971, encouraged the board to pass a resolution stating that lesbian issues were feminist issues.

The Lyon-Martin Health Services medical clinic, which was founded by health activists in 1979, was renamed in their honor in 1991, according to the clinic's amended articles of incorporation. In 1995, Martin and Lyon were named delegates to the White House Conference on Aging by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Pelosi.

"Today the LGBT movement lost a real hero," stated NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell. "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. 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's love deserved."

Along with Lyon, Ms. Martin is survived by her daughter Kendra Mon; son-in-law Eugene Lane; granddaughter Lorraine Mon; grandson Kevin Mon; sister-in-law Patricia Lyon and a vast, loving, and grateful lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender family.

A public memorial and tribute celebrating Ms. Martin's life will be planned in the next several weeks.

In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made in Ms. Martin's honor toward the defeat of Proposition 8, the California marriage ban on the November ballot, through NCLR's No On 8 PAC at www.nclrights.org/NoOn8.