Pioneering lesbian rights activist dies just weeks after wedding

By Guy Adams
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:22

Del Martin, the pioneering lesbian rights activist whose career spanned more than five decades, and who twice took part in California's “first” gay marriage, has died at the age of 87.

Friends from across the political spectrum paid tribute today, after UC San Francisco Medical Center announced that Mrs Martin had passed away following a short illness aggravated by a broken arm. Her wife and partner of 55 years, Phyllis Lyon, was at her bedside.

The news emerged three months after Mrs Martin and Mrs Lyon became the first couple to legally exchange vows following California's decision to lift its ban on same-sex marriage. It was their second attempt to marry: a previous ceremony, which kicked-off a city-wide series of 4,000 same-sex weddings in 2004, was later declared illegal.

"Ever since I met Del 55 years ago, I could never imagine a day would come when she wouldn't be by my side," Mrs Lyon, 83, said in a statement. "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, a self-styled writer and "organiser," was one of eight women who in 1956 founded Daughters of Bilitis, America's first lesbian rights group, named after a 19th-century book of lesbian love poetry. She later became the editor of its influential newsletter, The Ladder, and wrote the agenda-setting books Lesbian / Woman and Battered Wives.

In the 1960s, she successfully led a campaign for the American Psychiatric Association to take homosexuality off its list of mental disorders, and was also a founder of the Lesbian Mothers Union, National Organisation for Women, Council on Religion and the Homosexual, and the Alice B Toklas Democratic Club, America's first openly gay political organisation.

Nancy Pelosi, the US House Speaker, frequently invited Mrs Martin and Mrs Lyon to Washington to act as a sounding-board for the lesbian community. "We would not have marriage equality in California if it weren't for Del and Phyllis," she said yesterday. "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."

Mrs Martin, who had been born Dorothy L. Taliaferro, met Lyon in the 1950s in Seattle, where she was working as a journalist following the collapse of her marriage to James Martin, the father of her daughter, Kendra. History relates that they were having drinks one night when the conversation turned to homosexuality. Martin was asked how she knew so much about it. "Because, well, I am one," she replied.

Although Lyon did not think of herself as a lesbian at the time, their relationship became a love affair in 1953. They moved to San Francisco together and swiftly became politically active. At the time, homosexuality was illegal in many US states, and police raids on lesbian and gay meeting places were commonplace.

Kate Kendell, director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a longstanding friend of the couple, said Mrs Martin would be remembered among America's greatest civil rights pioneers.

"If one were to name those who have made the most difference to various movements, whether it's civil rights, farm-workers' rights, women's rights, we all know whose those names would be," she said. "When it comes to the person who moved lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues forward, that figure would be Del Martin. We all stand on her shoulders."

In later years, Mrs Martin was at the forefront of the long-running campaign for same-sex marriage. At her wedding to Mrs Lyon in May, which was broadcast around the world, she wore a pastel-coloured pant-suit, and joked while cutting the cake that: "we're not getting any younger."

Gavin Newsom, the rising Democratic star and Mayor of San Francisco who pioneered California's legalization of gay marriage and spoke at their ceremony, has announced plans for a public monument to Martin in the city. "The greatest way we can honour the life work of Del Martin, is to continue to fight and never give up, until we have achieved equality for all," he said.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments