There are people in this world whose work and life have positively affected our own, often in ways we may not realize, about whom we may not know. On Wednesday, we lost an amazing person, Del Martin, at age 87.
Described as a “pioneering lesbian rights activist”, Martin married 83-year old Phyllis Lyon, her partner of fifty-five years, in a ceremony at San Francisco City Hall on June 16, 2008 – the the first day on which same-sex marriage was legal in the state of California.
Right: Del Martin (in purple) and Phyllis Lyon are married on June 16. Photo “courtesy” AP.
The label, though, could cause many of us who are not lesbians to mistakenly think her pioneering work did not affect our lives. Rest assured, though, her tireless work resulted in greater freedoms, protections, and equality for all citizens of the United States.
The California Supreme Court decision in May of this year, striking down a law that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman, came about as a result of a lawsuit filed by Martin and Lyon and two dozen other couples. Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said, “We would not have marriage equality in California if it weren’t for Del and Phyllis. They fought and triumphed in many battles.”
Martin and Lyon were involved in founding a San Francisco social group for lesbians in 1955 called the Daughters of Bilitis. It became the nation’s first lesbian advocacy organization and one of the earliest groups to address the rights of queer people.
In the 1970s, Martin became the first out lesbian to serve on the National Organization of Women’s board of directors, a move that was highly controversial as NOW was concerned that her presence would be seen as too radical at a time when homosexuality was still seen by many as a deviant practice.
In just a few short months, the rights and equality Del Martin worked so hard for, will one again be challenged as California voters face a yes or no decision on proposition eight: “Change the California Constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.”
As San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who officiated at Martin and Lyon’s wedding, said, “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.”
Thank you to Del Martin for a lifetime of service to humanity, and the deepest condolences to her partner of so many years, Phyllis Lyon.