Feature

Del Martin

The lesbian advocate who pioneered same-sex marriage

The lesbian advocate who pioneered same-sex marriage
Del Martin
1921–2008

On June 16, Del Martin wed her partner of 55 years, Phyllis Lyon, in California’s first legal gay marriage. Though she died following complications from a broken arm less than three months later, Martin symbolized the movement of gay and lesbian couples from society’s fringes into the American mainstream.

Born Dorothy Taliaferro, she married James Martin at 19 but was divorced four years later, said the San Francisco Chronicle. She met Lyon in Seattle in 1950, while both were working for a trade publication. “Their friendship turned into a romance.” Together in San Francisco in 1955 they founded the Daughters of Bilitis, “named after a 19th-century book of lesbian love poetry,” and agitated for gay rights. “Nothing was ever accomplished by hiding in a dark corner,” Martin declared. “Why not discard the hermitage for the heritage that awaits any red-blooded American woman who dares to claim it?”

Martin was a tireless advocate, said the Los Angeles Times. She lobbied local lawmakers to “modify the sex laws that criminalized homosexual behavior” and helped convince the American Psychiatric Association “to take homosexuality off its list of mental disorders.” She was also the first lesbian on the board of directors of the National Organization for Women. On Feb. 12, 2004, in a historic ceremony, Martin and Lyon married in San Francisco. The California Supreme Court soon invalidated their union and 4,000 other gay weddings that Mayor Gavin Newsom had licensed. But an appeal led to a reversal that went into effect at 5 p.m. on June 16, and Newsom joined Martin and Lyon again. “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.”

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