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The San Francisco Chronicle

Lesbian Rights Pioneer Del Martin Dies at 87

Rachel Gordon

Del Martin, left, with Phyllis Lyon at their June wedding. (Source: SF Chronicle)

Lesbian rights pioneer Del Martin, whose trailblazing activism spanned
more than five decades, most recently in the battle for same-sex
marriage, died Wednesday, just two months after she made history again
by wedding her longtime partner in San Francisco City Hall.

Ms. Martin, an author and organizer, died at UCSF Hospice after a
long period of declining health. She was 87 and was admitted to the
hospital nearly two weeks ago with a broken arm.

Ms. Martin's crusading began in 1955, during an era in America known
more for social conformity than for rebellion, when she co-founded a
lesbian social-turned-political organization, Daughters of Bilitis,
named after a 19th century book of lesbian love poetry.

This year, on June 16, she and her partner of 55 years, Phyllis
Lyon, were legally wed. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom officiated.
Theirs was among the first same-sex nuptials in California.

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

"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, 83, said in a
statement. "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."

'We're not getting younger'

Ms. Martin had been in failing 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 took
her marriage vows in the mayor's office, 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 at 5:07 p.m,
just 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. Martin and Lyon were the first
of about 4,000 same-sex couples to wed and made news internationally.
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

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 at Market and Castro streets to be flown at half-staff
until sunset today.

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 for 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.

Feinstein said Wednesday, "Del and Phyllis were a loving couple,
cherished by an entire community. They inspired so many, young and old."

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

Together for almost 60 years

She and Lyon met in Seattle in 1950 while both were working as
journalists for a trade publication. Their friendship turned into a
romance two years later. In 1953, on Valentine's Day, the couple moved
into a Castro district flat in San Francisco.

After helping found the Daughters of Bilitis, they started a
newsletter, called the Ladder, which grew into a magazine focused on
lesbian politics and culture.

In the first issue, Ms. Martin set the tone for how she would lead
the rest of her life when she wrote: "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?"

Cleve Jones took that message to heart when he met the couple in
1972. He was a student at Arizona State University, and the duo went to
speak to a gay liberation organization.

"For a kid just out of high school, listening to them was a
life-altering experience," said Jones, who later moved to San
Francisco, where he worked as a student intern in the City Hall office
of gay Supervisor Harvey Milk and founded the Names Project AIDS
Memorial Quilt. "They were so confident, so unapologetic, so radical."

And, added Kendell, from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, "so
fearless. In every social movement, political movement, there's someone
who transcends their time. For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
people, Del Martin was one of those people."

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

Del Martin

-- 1921 - Born on May 5 in San Francisco

-- 1950 - Met the love of her life, Phyllis Lyon

-- 1955 - Co-founded groundbreaking lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis

-- 1960 - Took over as editor of the Ladder, a monthly lesbian magazine

-- 1964 - Helped found the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, formed to overturn laws that criminalized homosexual behavior

-- 1972 - Co-wrote with Lyon the book "Lesbian/Woman"

-- 1972 - Co-founded with Lyon the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the first gay political club in the United States

-- 1976 - Published the book "Battered Wives," which focused on domestic violence

-- 1976 - Appointed chairwoman of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women

-- 1995 - Served as a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging

-- 2004 - Wed Lyon in the first of about 4,000 same-sex weddings
sanctioned by San Francisco but later ruled invalid by the California
Supreme Court

-- 2008 - On June 16, married Lyon again, this time with the
blessing of the state Supreme Court, which found the state ban on
same-sex marriage illegal


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