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Passages: Del Martin
2008-09-03

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Del Martin—the legendary lesbian activist who married her lover of 55 years, Phyllis Lyon, June 16 in California—died Aug. 27 in San Francisco, Calif., according to a release from the National Center for Lesbian Rights ( NCLR ) . Martin was 87.

Pictured: Del Martin ( left ) and Phyllis Lyon cut a cake in honor of Daughters of Bilitis at a 2005 Gerber/Hart Library benefit in Chicago. Del Martin ( left ) and Phyllis Lyon with Chicagoan Chuck Renslow at a 2005 Gerber/Hart Library benefit in Chicago. Photo by Mel Ferrand

Martin and Lyon met in Seattle in 1950 and formally became partners three years later. In 1955, they were among those who started the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organization. The following year, they launched The Ladder, the first widely circulated national newsletter in the United States.

Years later, Martin was the first out lesbian elected to the board of the National Organization of Women ( NOW ) , according to the NCLR release. In 1971, she urged the board to pass a resolution that made lesbian issues feminist topics.

In 1972, Martin and Lyon co-founded the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the first gay political club in the United States, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. Expanding into the area of domestic violence, Martin published the book Battered Wives in 1976.

In 1995, Martin was a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging.

When Martin and Lyon wed this year, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who officiated the wedding, recognized them as the first gay couple to legally exchange vows in the city, The Mercury News reported. They previously wed in 2004, but the courts overturned that marriage.

Innumerable politicians and LGBT organizations noted Martin's passing. 'Today the LGBT movement lost a real hero,' said Kate Kendell, NCLR's executive director, in the organization's statement. 'For all of Del's life, she was an activist and organizer even before we knew what those terms meant.'

In another statement, Human Rights President Joe Solmonese said, 'The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has lost one of its bravest and most admired activists. Del Martin dared for decades to fight to marry her beloved Phyllis, and by doing so became an iconic hero the LGBT community. Her death is a great loss to all of us, but her life is an inspiration.'

'It's impossible to overstate Del's importance in the struggle for LGBT rights and dignity,' said Lambda Legal Senior Counsel Jennifer C. Pizer. 'When she and Phyllis started Daughters of Bilitis, they were nearly alone in Joe McCarthy's America. ... Everything we've accomplished—marriage rights, anti-discrimination protections in the workplace, even the ability to visit our partners in the hospital—owes a vast debt to her work and example.'

Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the only out lesbian in the U.S. Congress, said that 'Del Martin holds a place of honor in the pantheon of American civil rights leaders. She was a hero and a role model to me and countless other LGBT women and men who seek nothing more and nothing less than full equality. I offer my deep sympathies to her beloved wife, Phyllis, and pledge to carry on the work that they began.'

Besides Lyon, Martin is survived by several relatives, including daughter Kendra Mon, son-in-law Eugene Lane, granddaughter Lorraine Mon, grandson Kevin Mon and sister-in-law Patricia Lyon.

Gifts can be made to honor Martin's life and commitment, and to defeat the California marriage ban, through NCLR's 'No On 8' PAC at www.nclrights.org/NoOn8. A public memorial and tribute celebrating Martin's life will be planned in the next several weeks.


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