Gay Rights Pioneer Del Martin Dies

Jim Burroway

August 27th, 2008

Sad news:

Del Martin, a pioneering lesbian rights activist who married her lifelong partner on the first day same-sex couples could legally wed in California, has died. She was 87.

Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, says Martin died at a San Francisco hospital Wednesday morning two weeks after a broken arm exacerbated her existing health problems. Kendell says her wife, Phyllis Lyon, was by her side.

This is Del Martin (left, 87) and Phyllis Lyon (right, 83) at their wedding last June. They had been together for fifty-five years.

Phyllis and Del

They, along with six other women, founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955. The Daughters were the first major lesbian organization in the United States. Phyllis edited the DOB’s newsletter The Ladder beginning in 1956. Del edited The Ladder from 1960 to 1962. The Daughters eventually disbanded in 1970 after having established chapters all across the United States

In 1964, they helped found the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, bringing together national religious leaders and gay and lesbian activists for a national discussion of gay rights. Later, Del was heavily involved in getting the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

Shortly after Del and Phyllis’ wedding, we re-printed a portion of the very first issue of The Ladder, which featured an essay by Del Martin. In celebration of all that Del has been able to accomplish in her life, we offer her own words from 1956 for your consideration:

MESSAGE FROM THE PRESIDENT
Since 1950 there has been a nationwide movement to bring understanding to and about the homosexual minority.

Most of the organizations dedicated to this purpose stem from the Mattachine Foundation which was founded in Los Angeles at that time. Members of those organizations — the Mattachine Society, One, and National Association for Sexual Research — are predominantly male, although there are a few hard working women among their ranks.

The Daughters of Bilitis is a women’s organization resolved to add the feminine voice and viewpoint to a mutual problem. While women may not have as much difficulty with law enforcement, their problems are none the less real — family, sometimes children, employment, social acceptance.

However, the lesbian is a very elusive creature. She burrows underground in her fear of identification. She is cautious in her associations. Current modes in hair style and casual attire have enabled her to camouflage her existence. She claims she does not need help. And she will not risk her tight little fist of security to aid those who do.

But surely the ground work has been well laid in the past 5½ years. Homosexuality is not the dirty word it used to be. More and more people, professional and lay, are becoming aware of its meaning and implications. There is no longer so much “risk” in becoming associated with [text missing].

And why not “belong”? Many heterosexuals do. Membership is open to anyone who is interested in the minority problems of the sexual variant and does not necessarily indicate one’s own sex preference.

Women have taken a beating through the centuries. It has been only in this 20th, through the courageous crusade of the Suffragettes and the influx of women into the business world, that woman has become an independent entity, an individual with the right to vote and the right to a job and economic security. But it took women with foresight and determination to attain this heritage which is now ours.

And what will be the lot of the future lesbian? Fear? Scorn? This need not be — IF lethargy is supplanted by an energized constructive program, if cowardice gives way to the solidarity of a cooperative front, if the “let Georgia do it” attitude is replaced by the realization of individual responsibility in thwarting the evils of ignorance, superstition, prejudice and bigotry.

Nothing was ever accomplished by hiding in a dark corner. Why not discard the hermitage for the heritage that awaits any red-blooded American woman who dares to claim it?

Del Martin, President
Daughters of Bilitis

Thank you Del. Go in peace. Our condolences go out to her widow Phyllis, and to the Martin-Lyon family.

K

August 27th, 2008

We all should honor her memory. We all owe so much to Del and Phyllis and other brave pioneers. We are but dwarfs standing on the shoulders of their courage and accomplishments.

Timothy Kincaid

August 27th, 2008

The Edge has a nice profile of Del.

Jason D

August 27th, 2008

how sad. But how HAPPY that she got to live long enough to marry her wife!!Thanks Del and Phyllis, for all you’ve done. We won’t forget.

MR Bill

August 27th, 2008

She was a mother to us all.
Thank you for this.

cowboy

August 27th, 2008

[Removed hat] I echo what K said.

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