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August 29, 2008

Remembering Del Martin

Sad news from Wednesday - lesbian activist (and newlywed) Del Martin has died at the age of 87. Martin and her partner Phyllis Lyon were together for 55 years, and were legally married just a few months ago when gay marriage became legal in California.

Martin and Lyon were some of the earliest public advocates for lesbian rights. They were among the small group that co-founded the advocacy group Daughters of Bilitis in 1955 and have been activists ever since. I've been reading Martin's obituary from Equality California, trying to figure out how to condense the list of her accomplishments here, and you know what? I can't do it. Check it out:
Del Martin used her writing and speaking talents to challenge misconceptions about gender and sexuality. “We were fighting the church, the couch, and the courts,” she often remembered years later, naming the array of social and cultural forces early activists confronted when homosexuals were treated as immoral, mentally ill, and illegal. As the first President of DOB, she penned stirring calls to arms. “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?” She was the second editor (after Phyllis Lyon) of DOB’s groundbreaking monthly magazine, The Ladder, from 1960 to 1962 and ushered in a new decade of political engagement and media visibility for the nascent gay rights movement. The Ladder grew from a mimeographed newsletter in 1956 to an internationally recognized magazine with thousands of subscribers by 1970, and thousands more readers who copied its contents or circulated it among friends and coworkers. Martin’s many contributions to The Ladder ranged from short stories to editorials to missives: one of the most famous is “If That’s All There Is,” a searing condemnation of sexism in the gay rights movement written in 1970. Due to Martin’s influence, The Ladder provided one of the few media outlets confronting misogyny in the decade before the rebirth of women’s liberation.

In 1964, Del Martin was part of a group that founded the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in order to lobby city lawmakers more effectively to reduce police harassment and modify the sex laws that criminalized homosexual behavior. In later years, Martin was also a founding member of the Lesbian Mother's Union, the San Francisco Women's Centers, and the Bay Area Women's Coalition, among other organizations.

As an early member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Del Martin worked to counter homophobia within the women’s movement – fear of the so-called “lavender menace.” She and Lyon were the first lesbians to insist on joining with a “couples’ membership rate” and Martin was the first out lesbian on NOW’s Board of Directors. Their efforts helped to insure the inclusion of lesbian rights on NOW’s agenda in the early 1970’s.

Lesbian/Woman, the book they co-authored in 1972, is one of Martin and Lyon’s landmark accomplishments. The book described lesbian lives in a positive, knowledgeable way almost unknown at the time. In 1992, Publishers Weekly chose it as one of the 20 most influential women's books of the last 20 years.

For many years, Del Martin was a leader in the campaign to persuade the American Psychiatric Association to declare that homosexuality was not a mental illness. This goal was finally achieved in 1973.

Del Martin’s publication of Battered Wives in 1976 was a major catalyst for the movement against domestic violence. Martin became a nationally known advocate for battered women, and was a co-founder of the Coalition for Justice for Battered Women (1975), La Casa de las Madres (a shelter for battered women) founded in 1976, and the California Coalition against Domestic Violence (1977). She lectured at colleges and universities around the country. Martin received her doctorate from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in 1987.

Martin’s keen political instincts and interests extended her influence into the mainstream Democratic Party. She and Lyon were co-founders, in 1972, of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the first gay political club in the United States. Martin was appointed Chair of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women in 1976 and served on the committee until 1979. She worked as a member of many other councils and boards including the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. Throughout the years, many politicians recognized their stature as community leaders and sought advice and endorsement from Martin and Lyon.

In a statement, Phyllis Lyon said "Ever since I met Del 55 years ago, I could never imagine a day would come when she wouldn't be by my side. I am so lucky to have known her, loved her and been her partner in all things...I also never imagined there would be a day that we would actually be able to get married. 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."

"We are saddened to lose such a wonderful friend to our community and our love goes out to Phyllis and her family during this most difficult time," said EQCA Executive Director Geoff Kors. "We would not be at this incredible moment in history, where all couples have equal rights under California law, if it had not been for Del's lifetime of courage and leadership. Our community will forever honor her life and legacy."

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Donna Hitchens, a founder of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said, "Del lived her life with great compassion, wit, tenacity, generosity and valor. She inspired thousands of us to be more courageous and energetic than we thought possible."

State Senator Carole Migden released the following statement in response to the death: "Del Martin slipped away from us just moments ago but her spirit and legacy will never be extinguished within the LGBT community. Del and her loving, longtime partner, Phyllis Lyon, were harbingers for change and activism long before lesbian issues became au courant and socially acceptable. All people and movements in search of true liberation owe an immeasurable debt to Del Martin who, along with other early brave souls, was determined to speak out and change the world to better the plight and lives of those whose voices are not heard. "

Barack Obama issued a statement saying "Michelle and I were deeply saddened to hear that Del Martin had passed. Del committed her life to fighting discrimination and promoting equality. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her spouse Phyllis Lyon, and all those who were touched by her life."

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom spoke briefly about Del and Phyllis at the LGBT Caucus at the Democratic National Convention:



Newsom later said, "I just found out about it right before I went up on stage. And you know, it’s hard to describe my respect and admiration for Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, what they’ve done to change this country and to change people’s hearts and minds and to reconcile those that may be a little different than others, but to humanize the LGBT community and to do what they’ve done in advancing fundamental human rights is second to none. And to hear that really one of the heroes of the civil rights movement in this country passed away, and someone that I was privileged to marry just a few months ago, was difficult for me. And I know politicians aren’t supposed to get up there and show any emotions, but it was human and real because she was an extraordinarily human person, and a person of total authenticity and lived her life out loud and never took no for an answer and demanded equal justice and equal rights. And she got it just a few weeks before she passed away."

According to Equality California, gifts in lieu of flowers can be made to honor Del’s life and commitment and to defeat the California marriage ban through NCLR’s No On 8 PAC at www.nclrights.org/NoOn8.



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