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Gay Rights Pioneer Del Martin Dies at 87

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Wednesday Aug 27, 2008
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On Tuesday, Aug. 27, one of the great pioneers of the gay-rights movement in the United States died. Del Martin, 87, died in San Francisco with lifelong partner and spouse Phyllis Lyon by her side at the University of California-San Francisco Hospice. The death was reported by Molly Tafoya, a spokesperson for the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, one of the many organizations Martin championed.

Martin was one of the nation’s first and most visible lesbian rights activists. In addition to Lyon, she is survived by a daughte, Kendra Mon, son-in-law Eugene Lane, granddaughter Lorraine Mon, grandson Kevin Mon and sister-in-law Patricia Lyon.

Martin helped created and jump start the modern LGBT and feminist movements. Her last public political act was probably her most visible: On June 16, 2008, her marriage to her partner of 55 years was the first to wed in San Francisco after the California Supreme Court decision in case in which Martin and Lyon were among the plaintiffs.

"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," Lyon said. "I also never imagined there would be 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."

Born in San Francisco on May 5, 1921, Dorothy L. Taliaferro, or Del as she would come to be known, was salutatorian of the first graduating class of George Washington High School and went on to study journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. At 19, after transferring to San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University), she married James Martin.

Two years later, she gave birth to their daughter Kendra. The marriage ended in divorce.

Del Martin met the love of her life, Phyllis Lyon, in Seattle in 1950 when they worked for the same publication company. They became lovers in 1952 and moved in together in San Francisco on Valentine’s Day 1953 in the home they shared for the rest of their lives.

Martin, Lyon, and six other lesbians co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) in San Francisco in 1955. DOB, which was named after an obscure book of lesbian love poetry, initially was organized to provide secret mutual support and social activities. It became the first public and political lesbian rights organization in the United States.

Del Martin used her writing and speaking talents to challenge misconceptions about gender and sexuality. "We were fighting the church, the couch, and the courts," she recounted years later. At a time when homosexuals were treated as immoral, mentally ill, and illegal, she fought public opinion.

The first president of DOB, she penned this stirring call to arms: "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?" She was the second editor (after Phyllis Lyon) of DOB’s groundbreaking monthly magazine, The Ladder, from 1960 to 1962.

The Ladder grew from a mimeographed newsletter in 1956 to thousands of subscribers by 1970. Martin contributed short stories, editorials and essays. One of the most famous was "If That’s All There Is," a searing condemnation of sexism in the gay rights movement written in 1970.

Due to Martin’s influence, The Ladder provided one of the few media outlets confronting misogyny in the decade before the rebirth of women’s liberation. In 1964, Del Martin was part of a group that founded the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in order to lobby city lawmakers more effectively to reduce police harassment and modify the sex laws that criminalized homosexual behavior.

In later years, Martin was also a founding member of the Lesbian Mother’s Union, the San Francisco Women’s Centers, and the Bay Area Women’s Coalition, among other organizations.

As an early member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Del Martin worked to counter homophobia within the women’s movement--fear of the so-called "lavender menace," as expressed by Betty Friedan and others.

’Today the LGBT movement lost a real hero.’

She and Lyon were the first lesbians to insist on joining with a "couples’ membership rate" and Martin was the first out-lesbian on NOW’s Board of Directors. Their efforts helped to insure the inclusion of lesbian rights on NOW’s agenda in the early 1970’s.

"Lesbian/Woman," the book they co-authored in 1972, described lesbian lives in a positive, knowledgeable way. In 1992, Publishers Weekly chose it as one of the 20 most influential women’s books of the last 20 years.

For many years, Del Martin was a leader in the campaign to persuade the American Psychiatric Association to declare that homosexuality was not a mental illness. This goal was finally achieved in 1973.

Del Martin’s publication of "Battered Wives" in 1976 was a major catalyst for the movement against domestic violence. Martin co-founded the Coalition for Justice for Battered Women (1975), La Casa de las Madres (a shelter for battered women) in 1976, and the California Coalition against Domestic Violence (1977).

She lectured at colleges and universities around the country. Martin received her doctorate from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in 1987.

Martin’s keen political instincts and interests extended her influence into the mainstream Democratic Party. She and Lyon co-founded in 1972 the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the first gay political club in the United States and still a major influence in the city. The club became famous as the proving ground of Harvey Milk.

Martin was appointed chair of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women in 1976 and served on the committee until 1979. She worked as a member of many other councils and boards, including the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women.

In 1979, local health care providers established a clinic to give lesbians in the San Francisco Bay area access to nonjudgmental, affordable health care and named it Lyon-Martin Health Services. In 1990, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California awarded the couple with its highest honor, the Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award.

In 1995, Senator Dianne Feinstein named Martin, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (now speaker of the House of Representatives) named Lyon, as delegates to the White House Conference on Aging, where they made headlines by using their moment at the podium to remind the 125,000 attendees that LGBT people grow old, too, and must be included explicitly in aging policies.

The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality gave Martin and Lyon their Outstanding Public Service Award in 1996. They are among the most beloved figures in the LGBT community and have served as Grand Marshals at Pride marches across the nation and been honored by every major LGBT organization in the country.

Del Martin identified her own legacy in 1984 when she said that her most important contribution was "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."

"Del lived her life with great compassion, wit, tenacity, generosity, and valor," said Donna Hitchens, Founder of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "She inspired thousands of us to be more courageous and energetic than we thought possible. When faced with moments of fatigue, laziness or weakness, one had only to ask ’What would Del and Phyllis do?’ While she will be greatly missed, her legacy will be cherished forever."

"Today the LGBT movement lost a real hero," said Kate Kendell, Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "For all of Del’s life, she was an activist and organizer even before we knew what those terms meant. Her last act of public activism was her most personal--marrying the love of her life after 55 years."

Gifts can be made in her honor to NCLR’s "No On 8 PAC". A public memorial service is being planned in San Francisco.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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