Earlier this week, the LGBT movement lost one of its most dedicated and beloved trailblazers, Del Martin, who passed away at age 87. Del and her lifelong partner, Phyllis Lyon, have been at the forefront of the lesbian rights movement for more than 50 years. You may remember seeing the moving photos of Del and Phyllis this summer, when they became the first couple to legally marry in the state of California. (Video: AP story on their marriage)
When young women come out today, many can find support from nearby LGBT community centers and local lesbian community groups. They can watch LOGO and The L Word, connect with other lesbians online, and see mainstream articles—like the press around Del and Phyllis’ marriage—and know that they can live openly in their communities and their workplaces, and if they choose to, formalize their commitment to the person they love. In Del’s youth, none of that existed.
For many, lesbian visibility consisted of old copies of The Well of Loneliness, tucked deep inside desk drawers. For young women coming out, there was no easy way to find community and have a place to be themselves. With Del’s dedication and hard work, this landscape began to change. In 1943, she met Phyllis. By 1955 they had founded the first lesbian rights organization in the U.S., the Daughters of Bilitis. The organization started as a social outlet, and with Del as its first president, evolved into a political organization.
In a time where lesbian and gay bars were routinely raided by the police, Del helped create an alternate space for lesbians to celebrate their identities and work for social change. Through the founding of legendary lesbian newsletter The Ladder, the couple created a vital lifeline for women who felt isolated.
The Ladder’s early articles advocated for lesbian and gay rights, and for relationship recognition issues some of us are fighting for today, like the right to joint tax returns and joint insurance policies. To write, publish, and distribute this publication in the 1950’s was an incredible act of bravery, and an act of love and dedication to the lesbian community. Del and Phyllis received death threats because of The Ladder, and the FBI investigated them and outed them to their employers (Video: Del and Phyllis discussing The Ladder). Despite the hurdles of publishing The Ladder, Del and Phyllis continued to do it, knowing that for many closeted women, reading the latest copy was their only connection to lesbian life. The Ladder ran until 1972.
Del’s activism went beyond the Daughters of Bilitis and The Ladder. She was the first openly lesbian woman elected to the board of the National Organization for Women (NOW), she was a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging, and she and Phyllis were the first couple legally married in California this June after the Supreme Court decision. Sadly, Del and Phyllis were only married a short time, but they were able to share and celebrate their marriage with the entire world, through the many news stories about their union. Del and Phyllis’ decision to share their wedding with news cameras and reporters was a logical step for a couple who had committed their lives not only to each other, but to the LGBT movement. Del’s activism led her to not only speak out, empower others, and elevate their voices. Before she and Phyllis started The Ladder, there was no place for an out lesbian to have a voice. Today there are openly LGBT journalists, and LGBT people and issues are regularly covered in mainstream media. Del’s vital work and her commitment to LGBT media visibility will live on through all of us whom she has, and continues to, inspire.
(By Sarah Kennedy, Media Field Strategist for the Central Region)