• Photo for Gay Rights Pioneer Del Martin Dies at 87

Gay Rights Pioneer Del Martin Dies at 87

By L.K. Regan

The LGBT community lost one of its most admired campaigners yesterday with the death of Del Martin at the age of 87. Martin was a lesbian activist and organizer who helped to shape the modern gay and lesbian rights movement. She and her partner, Phyllis Lyon, 83, were also the first couple married in San Francisco after the California Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage. Their wedding took place at City Hall, and was officiated by Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Martin's marriage was just the latest of many choices in her life that put her well ahead of her time. In an era when women's education was far from a given, she studied journalism at UC Berkeley and at San Francisco State University (then called San Francisco State College). After a failed marriage, Martin met Phyllis Lyon, who would become her life partner, when the two worked for the same Seattle publishing company. The two moved in together in 1953, one year into their relationship, and in 1955 bought the San Francisco house they would live in for the rest of their life together. In the same year, Martin, Lyon and several others founded the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). DOB was a society providing both social settings and support for lesbians; it became the nation's first lesbian advocacy group, and was a crucial foundation to the lesbian and women's rights movements.

With DOB as a springboard, Del Martin was involved in an astonishing number and variety of civil rights causes. Through DOB's journal, The Ladder, Martin penned both fiction and essays intended to advocate for gay and women's rights. She helped to found a group that lobbied San Francisco city officials to de-criminalize homosexuality. She was the first openly gay woman on the board of directors of the National Organization for Women (NOW); from that platform, she worked to end homophobia within the women's rights movement. And in 1973, Martin's years of lobbying the American Psychiatric Association came to fruition when homosexuality ceased to be considered a mental illness.

Martin was the recipient of numerous awards and honors recognizing her contributions. Since 1979, the Lyon-Martin Health Services have borne her and her spouse's names in reference to the clinic's mission to provide lesbian, bisexual and transgender women with non-judgmental, affordable health care. In 1990, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California awarded Martin and Lyon the Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award, its highest honor. And the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality presented Martin and Lyon with their Outstanding Public Service Award in 1996.

Martin was known for her outspoken attitude and fearless honesty. As she once wrote in The Ladder, "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?" That moral strength was the constant backdrop to Martin's tenacious pursuit of social equality. Describing her legacy in 1984, Martin spoke of "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."

Her life was a tribute to those values, and to her 55-year relationship with Lyon. Speaking of her spouse's death on Wednesday, Lyon put their relationship in the context of the continuing struggle for equal rights—exactly as Martin would have wanted it. "Ever since I met Del 55 years ago," Lyon said in a statement, "I could never imagine a day would come when she wouldn't be by my side. I also never imagine 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."

Given the legacy Martin left behind, it is no surprise that, in lieu of flowers, her family is directing contributions toward defeating the November ballot initiative intended to ban gay marriage in California. To contribute, go to the National Center for Lesbian Rights NO on 8 Committee.