Pioneering lesbian activist Del Martin has died, aged 87. She had been in declining health for some time, but thankfully lived long enough to be able to marry her partner of 55 years, Phyllis Lyon, on June 16 of this year.
I used the word "lion" in the title deliberately: but not with any intention of punning on the surname of Ms. Martin's widow. Del Martin was a gay activist before that phrase was even invented. She and Phyllis were gay activists together for twelve years before the man (San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom) who married them this summer was even born. Del and Phyllis jointly founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first social and political organization for lesbians in the United States. That was in 1955, when the word "lesbian" was uttered in public only in the titles of lurid "thrillers" purveying bad genre soft-core porn in "dirty" bookstores. The National Organization for Women, which Martin and Lyon both joined, jointly, as the first lesbian couple to do so, was founded eleven years later.
Let us remember what life in 1955 was like. It was the era of Eisenhower Republicanism. The Second World War formally ended when the Soviet Union ended its state of war against Germany. West Germany became a sovereign nation. Richard J. Daley (father of the present mayor, Richard M. Daley) became mayor of Chicago. Jonas Salk announced his polio vaccine. Rock and roll got its start. Ray Kroc was beginning to push McDonald's into becoming a household name and a worldwide economic force. Disneyland opened in California. Emmett Till was killed because he was black and visiting in the wrong part of the country. Racial segregation was banned on interstate buses and trains. Fred Phelps founded the Westboro Baptist Church. Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. Gay sex (or "sodomy," or "buggery," or "the unspeakable crime against nature," as it was more usually referred to) was illegal in all 50 states. Alfred Kinsey's groundbreaking book on sexual behavior in the human male had appeared just seven years previously. The whole thrust of culture and society was toward conformity, and yet two women, who had met and fallen in love five years previously, decided to buck that trend and stand up for their right to live their lives honestly and openly.
Someone will have to explain to me, not that I think such a thing would even be remotely possible, exactly how it is that the legal union of these two courageous women demeaned or desecrated the marriage state. They had been married in everything but name for half a century and more before the state got around to recognizing that salient fact. Not many couples--of whatever sexual orientation--can boast relationships of that length and stability. A world where Britney Spears can walk into a wedding chapel and legally marry a man--whom she would divorce fifty-five hours later and claim the whole thing had been just a "joke"--but two women who had been in a loving relationship for fifty-five years were denied the same opportunity until a mere two months before one of them died is not what I would call either just or fair. And I would certainly argue that while one of the two relationships I've just mentioned absolutely tarnished and desecrated the institution of marriage, it was not that of Ms. Martin and Ms. Lyon.
Those two women had the courage of their convictions--and stood up for them-- at a time when most gay and lesbian folk were doing their utmost to stay hidden in the closet. They may have been afraid at times--as who would not have been?--but they were indomitable in fighting for what they knew to be right. I rejoice that they were able to see that long-held dream become a reality before one of them was gathered to her everlasting reward.
I'm certain that that odious little man from Kansas will come out with some sort of hateful press release denouncing Martin and Lyon's relationship and hubristically announcing that Del is now roasting in hell for the sin of having loved another woman. It matters only a little, and that primarily for the pain it will cause to Del's loved ones. The good news is that the sort of hatred espoused by Phelps, once the norm at the time Del and Phyllis began their relationship, is gasping out its last breaths on its own deathbed. It's a pity it couldn't have died before she did. Its end will come soon enough, though--thanks in large part to lions like Del Martin. God be good to her.