Legendary lesbian activist Del Martin died on Wednesday morning at the age of 87. Her lifelong partner Phyllis Lyon, whom she married legally at last in California in June, was by her side. Martin and Lyon co-founded the nation’s first national advocacy group for lesbians, the Daughters of Bilitis, in 1955. Martin and Lyon were the first same-sex couple to legally wed in San Francisco on June 16 in a ceremony officiated by Mayor Gavin Newsome at City Hall.
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon met in Seattle in 1950 while working for a magazine. The two quickly became fast friends, and two years later, became a couple. After moving to San Francisco in 1953, Lyon and Martin became active in the LGBT community there and in 1955, helped to co-launch the lesbian advocacy group Daughters of Bilitis. Five years later, the organization had spread nationwide, with chapters all over the country.
After turning over the reins of Daughters of Bilitis in the late 1960’s, Martin and Lyon went on to become active in the National Organization for Women. Del Martin was the first out lesbian to ever be elected to NOW. In the late 1980’s, the couple joined Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, a national network of lesbians over age 60 working to combat ageism. In 1995, Martin and Lyon were named delegates to the White House Conference on Aging by Senator Dianne Feinstein and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.
Though together in love for over a half-century, Lyon and Martin were never able to legally recognize their relationship until February 12, 2004. For a brief moment, the couple shared the joy of an official marriage license from the city of San Francisco when Mayor Gavin Newsome declared the city must issue licenses to same-sex couples. That marriage, however, was later invalidated by the California Supreme Court.
Four years later, Martin and Lyon were able to finally realize their dream of become legally married. They were the first same-sex couple to wed in San Francisco following a historic California Supreme Court ruling that the ban on gay marriage in California was unconstitutional. Martin and Lyon were wed in a ceremony at City Hall in San Francisco by Mayor Gavin Newsome.
Sadly, only a few months after finally celebrating the dream of a lifetime, Del Martin passed away on Wednesday at the age of 87. Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center of Lesbian Rights, announced Martin’s death late Wednesday morning. Martin died at a San Francisco hospital after complications from a broken arm aggravated her previously existing health problems.
Kendell stated in a press release from NCLR that Phyllis Lyon, Martin’s lifelong partner and spouse, was by her side.
“Martin was one of the nation’s first and most visible lesbian rights activists who dedicated her life to combating homophobia, sexism, violence, and racism,” Kendell stated. “Martin’s many contributions to the LGBT movement will resonate for decades to come.”
“Today the LGBT movement lost a real hero,” said Kendell. “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. In the wake of losing her, we recognize with heightened clarity the most poignant and responsible way to honor her legacy is to preserve the right of marriage for same-sex couples, thereby providing the dignity and respect that Del and Phyllis’ love deserved.”
Gifts in lieu of flowers can be made to honor Martin's life and commitment and to defeat the proposed California marriage ban amendment through NCLR’s No On 8 PAC at www.nclrights.org/NoOn8.