Longtime leader in lesbian rights movement

Times Staff Writer

Del Martin, a pioneer lesbian rights activist who, with her partner of more than 50 years, Phyllis Lyon, became the first same-sex couple to legally marry in San Francisco in June, died Wednesday. She was 87.

Martin died in the hospice unit of UC San Francisco Medical Center, two weeks after a broken arm worsened her existing health problems, said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco.

“We would not have marriage equality in California if it weren’t for Del and Phyllis,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Wednesday.


“They fought and triumphed in many battles. . . . Through it all, their love and commitment to each other was an inspiration to all who knew them.”

Kendell, a longtime friend of Martin’s, told The Times on Wednesday that “if one were to name those who have made the most difference to various civil rights movements, whether it’s civil rights, farmworkers’ rights, women’s rights, we all know whose those names would be.

“When it comes to the person who moved lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues forward, that figure would be Del Martin. We all stand on her shoulders, and the gains made by the LGBT movement are owed in large part to Del Martin’s legacy.”

The highly publicized marriage of Martin and Lyon on June 16, the day the California Supreme Court’s ruling overturning laws banning gay marriage went into effect, was officiated by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in a private ceremony in his City Hall office.

But it wasn’t the first time the two women, who have been activist icons in the gay community for five decades, made history in San Francisco.

Martin and Lyon, whose relationship began in the early 1950s, also were the first couple married in San Francisco on Feb. 12, 2004, after Newsom challenged California’s marriage laws by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Some 4,000 gay and lesbian couples were married in the city before a court order halted the ceremonies a month later.

Although the state Supreme Court later invalidated the marriages, Martin and Lyon were among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state that led the court to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriages.

And so on June 16, the 83-year-old Lyon and the 87-year-old Martin were in Newsom’s office, where their wedding ceremony began at 5 p.m., the time when the Supreme Court ruling went into effect.

Holding hands during the six-minute ceremony, the two women recited their vows with tears welling in their eyes. Ceremony over, the room erupted in cheers.

Moments later, The Times reported, a crowd outside the mayor’s office burst into applause as Lyon slowly pushed Martin in a wheelchair toward a wedding cake.

“These are two extraordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives,” said Newsom. “They have spent a half-century fighting for equality.”

In 1956, Martin and Lyon joined six other women to found Daughters of Bilitis, the nation’s first lesbian rights organization.

It began as a support and social club for lesbians in San Francisco at a time when police raids on lesbian bars and other gathering places were not unusual. But Martin and Lyon soon felt it should be more than a social club, and by the early ‘60s, there were nearly 200 chapters around the country.

“Nothing was ever accomplished by hiding in a dark corner,” Martin, the group’s first president, wrote early on. “Why not discard the hermitage for the heritage that awaits any red-blooded American woman who dares to claim it?”

Martin became the second editor of the organization’s monthly magazine, the Ladder. Launched as a newsletter in 1956, it became an influential publication in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights movement.

In 1964, Martin was part of a group that founded the Council on Religion and the Homosexual to lobby city lawmakers to reduce police harassment and modify the sex laws that criminalized homosexual behavior.

Martin later helped lead a successful campaign to get the American Psychiatric Assn. to take homosexuality off its list of mental disorders.

She also was a founding member of the Lesbian Mother’s Union and the Bay Area Women’s Coalition, among other organizations, and she was an early member of the National Organization for Women.

Martin and Lyon co-wrote the book “Lesbian/Woman,” published in 1972, the same year they co-founded the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the first gay political club in the nation.

The author of the 1976 book “Battered Wives,” Martin became a nationally known advocate for battered women. She co-founded the Coalition for Justice for Battered Women in 1975; two years later she co-founded the California Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Martin was born Dorothy L. Taliaferro in San Francisco on May 5, 1921. She studied journalism at UC Berkeley and then transferred to what is now San Francisco State University. At 19, she married James Martin and gave birth to her daughter, Kendra, two years later. The marriage ended in divorce.

Martin met Lyon in Seattle in 1950 when they both worked for the same trade publication.

They were having drinks with another woman one night when the conversation turned to the topic of homosexuality. Martin was asked how she knew so much about it. “Because, well, I am one,” she replied.

The friendship between Martin and Lyon, who reportedly did not think of herself as a lesbian at the time, turned into a love affair in 1952. After moving to San Francisco, they moved in together on Valentine’s Day 1953.

“They were completely devoted to each other,” said Kendell, “and their political and personal and emotional lives were so intertwined, not only did they share a rich political history but they did that classic thing couples do where they could finish each other’s sentences and read each other’s thoughts.”

In addition to Lyon, Martin is survived by her daughter, Kendra Mon; and two grandchildren.

A public memorial and tribute to Martin in San Francisco is pending.