Del Martin, Cofounder of the DOB, Dies at 87

Published in: November-December 2008 issue.


DEL MARTIN, whose name was inextricably tied to that of her life partner, Phyllis Lyon, for 55 years, died on August 27 in San Francisco at the age of 87, after several years of declining health. The couple was married in San Francisco in early 2008, the first couple to be hitched officially after the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Del Martin
Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin in 1957

A lifelong San Francisco resident, Del Martin was born Dorothy L. Taliaferro. She was an avowed feminist from the time that she was denied a magazine delivery route at age six because she was a girl (according to Completely Queer, 1998). She was a journalism major in college, where she married a man at the age of nineteen, had a daughter, and divorced four years later. She met Phyllis Lyon in 1950; three years later they set up housekeeping together on Castro Street, opened a joint bank account, and established themselves as a couple.

In their search for lesbian friends, they ended up founding the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first explicitly lesbian organization in America, with Martin as its first president. The DOB would develop into a national organization over the next few years. Its four goals were stated as follows: “the education of the variant; education of the public at large; participation in research projects; and investigation of the penal code as it pertains to the homosexual.” In 1967, the word “variant” was changed to “lesbian.”

Starting in 1956, the DOB published a monthly newsletter, The Ladder, first edited by Phyllis Lyon. The first lesbian periodical to be published on an ongoing basis, The Ladder would later develop into a full-fledged magazine. Its purpose was to help lesbians discover who they were and to affirm their identity, and its importance in encouraging lesbians to come out cannot be overstated. Martin served as its editor for several years.

Martin was a driving force behind a variety of feminist and lesbian organizations and is believed to have been the first openly lesbian woman elected to the board of directors of the National Organization of Women (NOW). In the early 1970’s, Martin voiced her distress at the perceived sexism of some gay men in an open letter to The Advocate titled “Goodbye, My Alienated Brothers.” The letter helped pave the way for the lesbian separatist movement. In later years, however, Martin found that the situation between gay men and lesbians had vastly improved.

She wrote several books with Lyon, the best known of which is Lesbian/ Woman (1972), which was republished in a special twentieth anniversary edition. Her book Battered Wives (1976) arose out of her work with abused woman and her experience founding a shelter, La Casa de los Madres. Human rights advocacy and freedom of the press were foremost among the many causes that she fought for. Her life with Phyllis Lyon was documented in the 2003 film No Secret Anymore, and the history of the DOB was documented by Marcia Gallo in Different Daughters (2006). (Gallo was interviewed in the March-April 2007 issue of this magazine.)


Del Martin is survived by her daughter Kendra, two grandchildren, and by Phyllis Lyon.