Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rest In Peace Del, We'll Continue the Fight for You.

Awhile back I used this picture of these two special ladies to emphasize my celebration that California had recently legalized homosexual marriage. Tragically Del Martin, shown on the left, died yesterday at the age of 87.

One of the matriarchs of the modern homosexual movement, her passing should leave a hole in the heart of every American lesbian; it certainly does in mine. I know that I can walk the streets of America freely without fear of incarceration or involuntary hospitalization because of women like Del Martin and her long-time partner Phyllis Lyon.

When I was rather young, being a lesbian was certainly not the "cool" thing it is today. Until I was 25 I had only seen two references to lesbians on the TV, and both of them were not in the best light if you know what I mean. In high school as my friends all talked about their crushes on boys, I remained quiet, never daring to discuss how my heart would flutter when "Judy" would walk by or talk to me in class. In 8th grade I had even gone so far as to begin wearing sunglasses at all times as a way of hiding what I believed to be my biggest tell... my eyes.

The library was my refuge at this point in life. Although I never had the guts to actually check out a book with gay or homosexual content, I did sit quietly in the corner and read every one of them I could lay my hands on. I surmised I was not alone in my interest merely by a closer examination at the card catalog and realizing the cards in the area of "homosexual" "gay" or "lesbian" seemed to be the most thumbed over and dogeared of the entire filing system, secondary only to the cards for "sex". For those of you without a clue as to what I mean by "card catalog" OMG, you make me feel so old.

By the time I reached 16, my life had changed quite a bit. I moved to a larger city to be with my father, and had gone to work in a fast food restaurant. There I met two gay men who took me under their angel wings and opened my eyes to the "Wonderful World of Gaydom" (their words, not mine). I learned about "cruisy" spots although I never intended to use them (most certainly these things are for gay men only), but also about just hanging around women's softball games and the local "gay" park. Oh yes, this was change. These were my people. They had many of the same feelings as I did, and I immediately felt a camaraderie with them based simply on the fact that we had all suffered very much the same problems in our youth.

College was the next step. I joined the campus gay and lesbian group and became rather politically active... well, at least as politically active as one could be in middle America. We had meetings and rallies and most importantly I met some of the sweetest people I've had the the pleasure to call my friends. We put out a newsletter which the school allowed us to distribute right alongside the campus rag, we also had seminars where we discussed issues and brought national leaders in the gay community to discuss options. It was a great feeling to be out and proud and not feel ashamed to be gay.

It was early in this period when I first learned of Del Martin (on the left in the picture above) through a book she penned named Lesbian/Woman written in 1971. This changed the way I looked at myself as a lesbian. It was given to me by a friend who suggested I read it to give my "anger" as she put it, some direction. It really worked, she was absolutely correct. Ms. Martin's assertion that just because I happen to prefer women to men on a relationship basis does not mean that I should accept fewer civil rights. It really struck a loud chord with me.

About this time I learned about an organization named The Daughters of Billitis which Ms. Martin and her longtime partner, Phyllis Lyon, helped to set up in 1955. This info came to me in the form of a movie that also shaped my gay existence, "Before Stonewall". I learned that when The Daughters of Billitis began meeting, it was with great secrecy, shades drawn and even whispered tones to make certain the neighbors didn't hear. Their motto was "Qui vive", French for "on alert". Soon they started a monthly newsletter which was passed from woman to woman which advocated an end to homosexual discrimination. Its mere existence showed women all over the country that they were not alone, giving them hope for a more open future.

I can personally relate to this feeling. Through the 70's and 80's I remember reading each and every book or pamphlet which talked openly about homosexuality with wide eyes and the deepening knowledge that I was not alone. Personally there is no way for me to even fathom what it would have been like to be a woman in the 50's/60's when the situation was even more constrained. Seriously, people were picked up off of the street and taken to insane asylums merely for loving - or being accused of loving - someone of the same sex.

The 1969 Stonewall Riots brought gay issues further to the forefront of the American public. Named after a drag queen bar in the center of the unrest, it was mostly a feeling of push comes to shove. The police often raided the illegal bar as a way to shake down the owners. Bribes would be paid, patrons not in the "correct" clothing would be arrested, and the officers would leave to return another night. This went on for years until one day not long after the death of Judi Garland (it has been said that her death had the men so upset that it was truly the catalyst for the event) the drag queens pushed back. Incredibly enough this bar was the only one in all of New York City where two men could go to dance together. This is 1969 New York City, people! We've come a long way baby!

Interesting aside. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked why the Germans call their Gay Pride celebrations, "Christopher Street Day" or variations thereof. It's pretty simple really. The Stonewall Inn bar was located on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. This was the first open rebellion of the homosexual people in America. Over the next week several more protests ensued, most of this happened right there on Christopher Street. The one year anniversary of the beginning of the riots was named Christopher Street Liberation Day and had the first gay rights march in American history.

By the time I was becoming "aware" of my lesbianism the Daughters were disbanded, Stonewall had happened, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold any kind of office had been assassinated, the American Psychiatric Association had removed homosexuality as a disease, and the needs of the Gay Community were changing. Dammit, I'm ALWAYS LATE!

As my college days neared their end the AIDS crisis began to hit the news in the Midwest daily. Our little college group was soon organizing an AIDS hotline and our symposiums became geared to medical knowledge available for and about this horrible disease which was still known as the "Gay Plague". In my humble opinion this disease has done more to further the "gay cause" and to open the average straight person's eyes to the gay plight than any community leader could have. Famous people like Rock Hudson and Freddy Mercury were being "outed" as being gay and having the disease which at that time meant a quick and untimely death sentence.

While all of this was going on, women like Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were quietly fighting to end police harassment, decriminalize homosexual behavior, and advocating equal rights for gays and lesbians under the law - including the right to marry the person of their choosing. She was an eloquent voice quietly asserting her views the whole way through the early gay and lesbian civil rights movement in America, lasting until just yesterday when at 87 years old she died due to complications of a bone fracture.

But her fight, begun all those years ago is still not over. She and her longtime partner were allowed to marry in June of this very year. Unfortunately not long after the nuptials - what I see as a fundamental right to choose who you want to spend your life with - another challenge was raised in the California courts. Once again there will be a vote for the people of California to decide if they wish to exclude gays and lesbians from having the right to marry who they wish. I'm hoping against hope that it all comes out positive.

I can't wait for the day when my sexuality is no more important than my eye color.

1 comment:

Goofball said...

Del Martin sure sounds like a great role model to have had when growing up. I am sorry to hear she has passed away