Del Martin, and What Makes a Life Meaningful

A very great woman died yesterday.

I want to talk about her. And I want to talk about some of the things that make a life meaningful.

If you aren’t in the queer community, you may not know who Del Martin was. And I’m not going to give you her whole biography here. But I want to hit a few high points before I get to my point.


Del Martin co-founded — along with her partner of over five decades, Phyllis Lyon — the Daughters of Bilitis, the very first public and political lesbian rights organization ever in the United States, back in the 1950s. Yes, you heard that decade right — the 1950s. She and Phyllis were the first and second editors of The Ladder, the DOB’s newsletter/ magazine and the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the U.S…. also begun in the 1950s. She was a leader in the campaign to get the American Psychiatric Association to declare that homosexuality was not a mental illness. She was the first openly lesbian woman elected to the board of the National Organization of Women.

Lesbian woman

She was co-author with Phyllis in 1972 of the book Lesbian/Woman, one of the first positive, lesbian-authored books about lesbian lives, chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the 20 most influential women’s books of the last 20 years. She was one of the first women to speak about sexism in the gay community. She was a major writer and activist in the movement against domestic violence. She and Phyl were the first couple to be married in San Francisco in the first round of same-sex weddings in 2004… and the first couple to be married in San Francisco in the most recent (and hopefully last) round, in 2008. She…

I could do this for pages. You can read more here, and here, and here, and… you know what, just Google her name. People are writing tributes to her all over the Web.

So this is what I want to say.

Like millions of other queers, I felt terribly sad when I heard she had died. It’s almost always sad when someone dies, and it’s especially sad when someone this remarkable dies, even if it’s someone you’ve never met. But as sad as it is, it’s not a death that seems tragic, or unjust. Because she got to have such an amazing life. She got to be a pioneer, someone who made real change for millions of people after her, and she got to be an influential activist throughout her life. She got to have tributes upon her death from people ranging from Gavin Newsom to Nancy Pelosi to Barack Obama. She got to be part of history. A not- insignificant part.


Plus, she got to have a 50+ year relationship with the love of her life.

And she got to marry that love of her life. Not so special for most people. But think about what the world was like when Del and Phyl were starting as lesbian activists. It was the ’50s. Homosexuality was still illegal in every state in the country. Homosexuals were still being put into mental institutions. The thought that one day, gays and lesbians would be able to get married, anywhere in this country, anywhere in this world… it must have been unimaginable. It wasn’t even on the radar. They weren’t fighting for the right to marry back then. They were fighting to not be put in jail, to not have their bars raided, to not lose their jobs and their children, to not be given shock treatment and lobotomies.

Greta and Ingrid City Hall wedding 2008

Think about what the world was like for queers then. And for all the messed-up crap, for all the work that still needs to be done, think about what the world is like for queers today.

Del Martin got to see the world change, in ways that at one time it probably wouldn’t have even occurred to her to dream about. And she got to be part of that change.

And she got to die at a ripe old age of 87, with her beloved at her side.

What a life to have lived.

I’m not saying that being an influential activist and important historical figure is the only way to create meaning. There are countless people who live and die unheard of by anyone but their immediate circle of family and friends… and their lives have tremendous meaning. Del Martin’s life isn’t the only way to have a meaningful life.

But it sure is a damn good one.

Recently in this blog, this Christian lackwit — excuse me, I do so try to criticize ideas and not insult people — this Christian with some truly lackwitted ideas, said, among other things, that atheists have no hope.

I want to say this: I have hope.

No, I don’t have any hope that I’ll get to be immortal and live forever after I die. I believe that’s a false hope, and I have let go of it. But I have much hope, and many hopes. And one of my greatest hopes is that my life will be even half as meaningful, and half as rich, and have half as much impact on the world around me, as Del Martin’s.


In Del’s memory, donations can be made to the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ No on 8 fund, the campaign to stop the same-sex marriage ban ballot initiative in California in November.

Del Martin, and What Makes a Life Meaningful
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4 thoughts on “Del Martin, and What Makes a Life Meaningful

  1. 1

    Brave woman, well done! I would hope to accomplish even a tenth as much in my life.
    It’s always a sad event to hear that a pioneer of human rights has passed away. But our sadness can be tempered with happiness for knowing that Del Martin saw so many of her dreams for equality come true. In just a few decades, gays and lesbians have made enormous social progress. Now let’s hope that there will be enough others to take up her torch and see that fight through to the final conclusion.

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