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By Liz Highleyman
Pioneering lesbian activist and longtime Noe Valley resident Del Martin passed away at age 87 on Aug. 27, following a period of failing health after breaking her arm. She died at the University of California at San Francisco hospice in the company of her life partner, Phyllis Lyon.
Martin and Lyon made headlines as the first lesbian couple married by Mayor Gavin Newsom during the February 2004 "Winter of Love," and again this past June after the California Supreme Court ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional--the result of a lawsuit in which Martin and Lyon were among the plaintiffs.
But the Duncan Street couple's activism--much of it carried out jointly--has a considerably longer history, dating back half a century.
"Ever since I met Del 55 years ago, I could never imagine a day would come when she wouldn't be by my side," said Lyon said in a statement issued by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which spearheaded the marriage lawsuit three years ago. "I am so lucky to have known her, loved her, and been her partner in all things."
A native San Franciscan, Martin (originally named Dorothy Taliaferro) was born May 5, 1921. She attended George Washington High School, studied journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco State University, married a man at age 19, and had a daughter, but that relationship soon ended in divorce.
Martin met Lyon in 1950 in Seattle, where they worked at a newspaper; they soon began dating, and three years later they began living together back in San Francisco. Recognizing that gay women had few opportunities to connect with one another, they co-founded the first U.S. lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, in 1955--the same year they purchased their home on Duncan Street in Noe Valley.
Martin served as Daughters of Bilitis president for several years, then assumed editorship of the group's groundbreaking publication The Ladder, penning editorials against oppression by "the church, the couch, and the courts," as she later put it. In 1964, Martin and Lyon helped form the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, which brought gay leaders and progressive clergy together to fight antigay discrimination and police harassment.
Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Martin and Lyon were involved in the larger progressive movements of the day, including the early feminist movement, anti-poverty organizing, and efforts to end the Vietnam War. In the early 1970s, Martin was the first open lesbian to serve on the board of the National Organization for Women. In 1972, Martin and Lyon co-authored Lesbian/Woman, one of the first positive portrayals of lesbian lives. That same year, they were among the founders of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the first gay political group of its kind.
Martin was also an advocate for victims of domestic violence, helping start battered women's shelters and authoring the well-regarded book Battered Wives (1976). In the late 1970s, she was a member of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. In 1987, she received a doctorate from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.
At a time when many people's thoughts turn toward retirement, Martin and Lyon kept up their activism, becoming advocates for seniors. Both were appointed to the White House Conference on Aging in 1995, giving a voice to gay and lesbian elders.
Martin's many contributions were recognized by elected officials at all levels. District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty said Martin "will always be one of our foremost heroes on the path to equality."
Mayor Newsom noted that Martin and Lyon "defined, from my perspective, what marriage is supposed to be about." Assemblyman Mark Leno said the couple were "directly responsible for the inclusion of a heretofore excluded minority."
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi added that Martin's "grace, courage, and commitment were a source of strength to all who knew her." Even Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama took time out from his campaign to express his regret at Martin's passing.
Martin is survived by Lyon, daughter Kendra Mon, and two grandchildren. Planning for a public memorial service is under way. Donations in her memory may be made to the effort to defeat Proposition 8 on the November ballot, which aims to amend the California state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.