Monday, September 1, 2008

Farewell to Del

Del Martin died an honest woman. After five decades of living in sin, of shacking up, of living outside the bonds of marriage, she finally wed the love of her life just two months before she died.

Did she have some sort of moral awakening? No, the California Supreme Court did.

When the court legalized same-sex marriage, Martin, 87, married her female partner, Phyllis Lyon, 83. The two had been a couple longer than Sears and Roebuck. As a lesbian pioneer, Del Martin, who died on Aug. 27, is part of the reason the court and society have evolved so profoundly on gay rights.

Personally, it's a mystery to me how one person can possess such guts and certainty. I have a feeling someone else got shortchanged.

Martin and Lyon met in Seattle in 1950 when both were journalists for a trade publication. Two years later the friends became lovers, and on Valentine's Day in 1953 they moved in together in San Francisco.

In 1955 they and six other lesbians co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, initially meant to provide social activities and quiet support for lesbians. DOB became the first national lesbian advocacy organization.

As an aside, I've long wondered who or what "Bilitis" was. Turns out she was a lesbian on the isle of Lesbos in a poem by Pierre Louys called "Song of Bilitis." As to how the word is pronounced, you're on your own.

Martin was DOB's first president. In the first issue of "The Ladder," the group's newsletter that would become a monthly magazine, she wrote, "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?"

In the 1950s such words must've seemed as charged as, well, the electroshock treatments lesbians then endured.

In 1964 Martin helped found the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, aimed at overturning laws criminalizing homosexual behavior. In 1972 she and Lyon co-authored the book "Lesbian/Woman," an honest look at lesbian lives. That year she and Lyon also co-founded the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the nation's first gay political club.

I'm sure these women must've gone on vacation. Once.

Martin fought against sexism within the gay rights movement, and against homophobia within the women's movement. She was the first out lesbian on the National Organization for Women's board of directors. In 1976 Martin published "Battered Wives," and became a nationally known advocate for battered women.

In 1995 she and Lyon were delegates to the White House Conference on Aging, where they made a splash by announcing to attendees that LGBT people actually age too.

They were the poster children for the personal is political. The capper was getting legally hitched. Twice.

When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom unleashed gay marriage in 2004, canny politicos saw that Martin and Lyon went first. I'll never forget that photo of the two elderly, lively women with their foreheads pressed together, ringed by teary activists.

The San Francisco marriages were voided, and I bet you can guess who served as plaintiffs in the California marriage case that led the state Supreme Court to scuttle the ban on gay nuptials.

On June 16, after a mere 55 years of co-habitation, Martin and Lyon stood in front of Mayor Newsom and were wed. Legally handcuffed.

After Martin's death, Lyon said, "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."

Del and Phyllis were political until the end—and beyond. Mourners are asked to contribute in Del's name to the fight against the proposed state marriage ban. Flowers are nice, but freedom lasts longer.