Best. Lesbian. Week. Ever. (August 29, 2008)

Lifelong lesbian activist Del Martin died on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008, in San Francisco; she was 87. She is survived by her partner of 55 years, Phyllis Lyon; her daughter and two grandchildren. A public memorial will be held in the future, but details have not yet been set.

One of Martin’s last political acts was to marry Lyon at 5:07 p.m. on June 16, just minutes after same-sex marriage became legal in the state of California. Martin and Lyon were part of a dozen plaintiffs who brought the case to the California Supreme Court after 2004’s same-sex marriages in San Francisco were nullified.

Without a doubt, could not have existed without the hard work that Martin and her wife, Lyon, did for over half a century in advocating for our rights as lesbians.

Martin (left) and Lyon on June 16, 2008

Martin was born in San Francisco on May 5, 1921, and studied journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State College. She married James Martin at age 19 and gave birth to their daughter, Kendra, two years later; the couple later divorced.

In 1950, she met and fell in love with Phyllis Lyon in Seattle, where they were both working as journalists. On Valentine’s Day in 1953, they moved into an apartment together in San Francisco’s Castro district. Their partnership in life and activism was a founding cornerstone of the 20th-century LGBT rights movement.

In 1955, Martin, Lyon and six other lesbians founded the Daughters of Bilitis, an organization named after a 19th-century collection of lesbian love poems, Songs of Bilitis, by Pierre Louys. The DOB became the nation’s first public lesbian rights organization, and Martin served as its first president.

The DOB soon launched a monthly newsletter, The Ladder, which went on to become the first national monthly lesbian magazine. Martin edited the magazine from 1960–62. In 1972, she and Lyon published the groundbreaking book Lesbian/Woman, which demystified lesbians for a mainstream audience and gave a positive, self-confident voice to many lesbians of the time.

Martin’s accomplishments as a feminist and activist were incredibly significant. She was the first out lesbian on the board of directors of the National Organization of Women. She and Lyon co-founded the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the first gay political club in the United States. She co-founded several activist organizations to combat violence against women. In 1979, the Lyon-Martin Health Services clinic was founded in San Francisco to provide lesbians access to quality healthcare.

Martin (left) and Lyon in 1972

In 1995, Martin and Lyon were delegates to the White House Council on Aging. In 2004, they became the first same-sex couple to marry in San Francisco after Mayor Gavin Newsom’s directive to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of San Francisco, said: “We would not have marriage equality in California if it weren’t for Del and Phyllis. They fought and triumphed in many battles. Through it all, their love and commitment to each other was an inspiration to all who knew them.”

The couple’s wedding cake on June 16

Lyon, 83, said in a statement: “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. 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.”

Martin’s passing shall be deeply mourned by all of us who have been touched by her work for our community. Her energy, spirit and courage ring out in the words that she wrote in the first issue of 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?”

May we all remember Del Martin, who has become an unforgettable part of our heritage.

— by Malinda Lo