Kate Kendell

WWDD? - What Would Del Do?

Filed By Kate Kendell | August 27, 2009 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Daughters of Bilitis, Del Martin, gay icons, health care reform, lesbian leaders, LGBT history, Ted Kennedy

Today marks the one-year anniversary of Del Martin's death. Even writing that sentence is hard.

Yes, Del lived a full and amazing life. Yes, she accomplished more than most people ever dream. Yes, she had 54 years of love and laughter and conversation with her partner - and then legal spouse - Phyllis Lyon. But still, to have Del gone at a time when it feels like we need her most just isn't fair.

In the year since Del died it feels like events to fill a decade have passed. Barack Obama was elected President, Prop 8 passed, our community rose up and caught fire, debate swirls about next steps and best strategy, the administration fights to win health care overhaul in the face of ridiculous and vicious attacks, we are still in two wars, the economy sputters and lurches, our community struggles to find a way forward. In times like this in the past, you could always count on Del to give perspective and context. In her no-bullshit, clear-eyed style, she would tell you what was what. She would dismiss self-pity and excuses. Her mantra could have been "just do it," long before Nike ever owned the phrase.

While the loss of Senator Ted Kennedy is an enormous blow to all of us, I like to think that before he'd even had a chance to take in the view from wherever he may be now, Del sidled up to him to enlist his help in doing all they could, from their new vantage point, to influence the right outcome on the health care overhaul. It was a passion Del and the Senator had in common.

For Del, nothing was impossible. In the 1950's, before there was anything that even resembled an LGBT movement and not even one positive image or visible leader, she and Phyllis began the creation of both--with the founding of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization in the world. They also began publishing The Ladder, the first lesbian publication in the world. There were many more firsts, and almost all of them at a time of unchecked hostility and ignorance about LGBT people and our lives.

Fortunately, they both lived long enough to see a different world--a world of powerful and effective organizations, a breadth of activism and leadership, greater tolerance and inclusion and safety, and the public celebration and recognition of their relationship and marriage on June 16, 2008. One of my sweetest memories came at the end of the whirlwind of events the day of their marriage. As the reception of friends and family celebrating this milestone was winding down, I bent down and asked Del if the day was everything she had hoped. She looked me straight in the eye and quietly said, "It was perfect."

Since Del's death, I've had the pleasure of spending many hours with Phyllis. I know she misses Del far more than any of the rest of us ever could. One of my favorite memories is just sitting in their living room, listening to the two of them discuss--and at times debate (just like an old married couple)--the latest current political event or recount some long-past movement controversy. Sitting there, listening to them dissect this or that event or bit of history always helped me understand the issue better or appreciate the moment in our past more. I always left their house feeling better up to whatever challenge faced me back at work.

Del was the personification of fearless and fierce. We all suffer her loss to our work and community--to say nothing of her wicked wit and sparkling blue eyes, even to the end alive with fiery intensity. Over the past months--and no doubt, in the coming months, there will be many future challenges. I may not always come up with exactly the correct action or response, but I will come close if I remember to ask myself first: "What would Del do?"

No one could do better than that.


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Julian Edward Domain | August 27, 2009 6:48 PM

What would Del do? she would keep fighting. Her life is an example of the change we are all capable of.

Del would never give up. As Julian said, she'd keep fighting.