It is with great sadness that we report that Del Martin, a pioneering Lesbian rights activist who married her lifelong partner, Phyllis Lyon on the first day same-sex couples could legally wed in California, has died. Martin was 87. Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, reported that Martin died at a San Francisco hospital Wednesday morning two weeks after a broken arm exacerbated her existing health problems. Kendell says her wife, Phyllis Lyon, was by her side. Martin is at the right in the picture at the right.
Among the most beloved figures in the Lesbian community, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon got married in San Francisco on February 12, 2004. A couple since 1953, they first earned a spot in queer history by founding the first national Lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis.
From its modest beginnings with eight members in 1955, the Daughters of Bilitis grew into a major force, helping Lesbians meet outside of bars, documenting their lives, and promoting civil rights.
Perhaps even more significant, the organization published "The Ladder," a national newsletter for Lesbians. Phyllis, as editor, assumed an alias for the first three issues before coming out in print with her real name. D.O.B. soon opened chapters in a dozen U.S. cities — and even Melbourne, Australia. Its first national convention, in San Francisco in 1960, was well attended, despite unwanted publicity. Martin and Lyon were involved in issues such as social security, Medicare and social justice for older Americans. Both were appointed delegates to the 1995 White House Conference on Aging. "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 also never imagined there would be a day that we would actually be able to get married," she added. "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."
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of San Francisco, said Del and Phyllis were instrumental in getting Gay marriage legalized.
"We would not have marriage equality in California if it weren’t for Del and Phyllis. They fought and triumphed in many battles," Pelosi said. "Through it all, their love and commitment to each other was an inspiration to all who knew them."
Martin and Lyon were married at City Hall on June 16, 2008. Mayor Gavin Newsom, who officiated the wedding, singled them out to be the first Gay couple to legally exchange vows in the city, in recognition of their long relationship and their status as Gay-rights pioneers.
"The greatest way we can honor the life work of Del Martin, is to continue to fight and never give up, until we have achieved equality for all," Newsom said Wednesday.
Martin…and Lyon…are such seminal figures in Lesbian and Gay history it would be impossible to overstate their contributions. Like Harry Hay and Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, none of us would be where we are, who we are, how we are without their courageous pioneering work. It is a sad day, but hers was a great life and we honor Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon for their lives.
We extend our sincere condolences to Phyllis Lyon and their family and friends.
For a marvelous interview with Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon by Teri Gross on Fresh Air go here.