Lesbian activist Del Martin dies at 87

Pioneering lesbian-rights activist Del Martin, whose two City Hall marriages in four years are considered iconic moments in the gay community’s longtime battle against homophobia, died today. She was 87.

Martin, the first lesbian woman elected to the board of the National Organization of Women in the 1970s, passed away two weeks after a broken arm aggravated her existing health problems, said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

She died at the UC San Francisco hospice, at the side of her 55-year-long partner and spouse, Phyllis Lyon, 83.

“I could never imagine a day would come when she wouldn’t be by my side,” Lyon said in a statement. “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.”

The news of Martin’s death sent shock waves through gay communities across the world — particularly for those in California, where the legality of same-sex marriages will be put up to vote in November.

Gay-rights activists have long considered Martin’s highly publicized partnership with Lyon as the most visible symbol of the ongoing fight for marriage equality.

The couple was the first to participate in a 2004 challenge of California laws against same-sex marriage, exchanging wedding vows only to see the ceremony later invalidated.

On June 16, when a decision by the state Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriages took effect, Martin and Lyon were the first same-sex couple to be married by Mayor Gavin Newsom at City Hall.

“The marriage … marked an historic milestone on our country’s road to true freedom and equality,” Newsom said in a statement Wednesday. “Del laid the groundwork for all those who want a life of dignity, and we are forever in her debt.”

Martin and Lyon were among the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian-rights organization in the United States, in 1955.

Since then, they also worked to garner justice for elderly Americans and battered women. The couple co-authored the book “Lesbian/Woman,” which documents the history of the lesbian movement up until the work was published in 1972. Martin later wrote a book on domestic violence titled “Battered Wives.”

Martin was born in San Francisco in 1921 and attended George Washington High School. She was briefly married to James Martin at age 19, with whom she had a daughter, Kendra. She met Lyon in 1950 when both were working for the same magazine in Seattle.


A lifetime of achievements

Lesbian-rights pioneer Del Martin, who took part in one of the state’s first same-sex weddings, died at the age of 87 on Wednesday.

  • Born Dorothy Taliaferro in San Francisco in 1921.
  • Attended George Washington High School.
  • Married to James Martin at age 19.
  • Had a daughter with Martin.
  • Divorced Martin after four years of marriage.
  • Earned journalism degree, went to work as a reporter for the Chico Enterprise-Record.
  • Met Phyllis Lyon in 1950 while both were working at a magazine in Seattle.
  • Moved in with Lyon in an apartment on Castro Street on Valentine’s Day 1953.
  • Helped establish the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, the first U.S. lesbian organization.
  • Was elected to the National Organization for Women in 1971 as the first openly lesbian member.
  • Co-wrote “Lesbian/Woman” about lesbian life in modern America with Lyon in 1971.
  • Co-wrote “Lesbian Love and Liberation” about sexual liberty with Lyon in 1973.
  • Wrote “Battered Wives” in 1979, which blamed American domestic violence on institutionalized misogyny.
  • Lyon-Martin Health Services was founded in 1979 as a clinic specifically for lesbians.
  • Martin and Lyon joined Old Lesbians Organizing for Change in 1989.
  • Served with Lyon in the White House Conference on Aging in 1995.
  • Married Lyon in San Francisco in 2004, a union that was later invalidated. The couple then joined a landmark lawsuit challenging California’s marriage law.
  • Married Lyon again at City Hall in 2008 following a California Supreme Court decision for marriage equality.
  • Died Wednesday at the age of 87.

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