Lesbian and civil rights activist Del Martin leaves a legacy of courage that continues to inspire us.
Civil rights leader Dorothy L. (“Del”) Martin died at UCSF Hospice in San Francisco, California on Wednesday, August 27. A pioneer and inspirational leader for LGBT and women’s rights for over 50 years, she was 87 years old.
Martin and her wife, Phyllis Lyon, made international headlines in June when they became the first same-sex couple to legally marry in California. In 2004, after their first marriage was voided by the California Supreme Court, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Legal, and the American Civil Liberties Union represented them as plaintiffs in the California marriage lawsuit that succeeded this May.
But the extraordinary role they played in the fight for marriage equality was only the most recent example of their courage and leadership. Martin and Lyon were co-founders in 1955 of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first public and political lesbian rights organization in the United States. Martin was instrumental in shaping, leading and inspiring the modern LGBT and feminist movements.
In addition to her groundbreaking work as editor of DOB’s monthly magazine, The Ladder, Martin also pressed multiple key civil rights initiatives, including the campaign to persuade the American Psychiatric Association to drop its categorizing of homosexuality as a mental illness, which was victorious in 1973. In 1972, Martin and Lyon published Lesbian/Woman, one of the earliest, positive books about lesbians in America. Martin was also a leader in the movement to end violence against women. She published Battered Women in 1975, and was co-founder of La Casa de las Madres, a battered women’s shelter.
Del Martin declared 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.” Tributes to Martin’s extraordinary civil rights contributions must similarly honor her beloved partner of over 50 years, Phyllis Lyon. Their hearts, lives and work were intertwined, sharing a fierce dedication to fairness and equal dignity for all, as well as humor, common sense and strategic vision.