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Until death do you part

Fri., Sept. 5, 2008

Del Martin is gone. Her wife, Phyllis Lyon, is in mourning.

Her wife.

It was with a heavy heart that I read of Martin’s passing, yet those two words, fitted into the story like they belonged – like it was no big thing to refer to another woman’s wife – brought an instant of great joy.

That recognition is exactly what Martin and Lyon spent a lifetime working for. The couple have been a pair for 55 years, as steadfast in their fight for lesbian rights as in their love for each other.

But had Martin died a mere three months earlier, the obituaries would not have been so inclusive. Lyon would have likely been her “longtime partner.”

They were among the very first to be married in June when same sex unions became legal in California. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom officiated at the wedding, a beautifully symbolic repeat of the renegade ceremony he performed in February 2004 to start what quickly became a national debate.

When Martin passed away last week, Newsom got word while attending the Democratic National Convention. He noted that November’s election may prove to be one of the most historic in nearly a century, not only because an African American man may win the White House, but because equal marriage laws could be upheld in California. Opponents have put on the ballot a measure to nullify the state Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage.

At first blush, to call California’s upholding of legal marriage more important than the Massachusetts law passed in 2004 feels a bit over the top. On the other hand, it is only this summer that we see “wife” and “husband” replacing “partner.”

It is only with weddings held in California that we see photos splashed across the cover of People magazine. Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi got the same celeb treatment as any other Hollywood pair, with mags vying for an exclusive on their wedding.

Now that’s equal marriage!

As the faces of commitment between two people, and all its possibilities, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon have done as much to gain respect for partnership as they have for marriage. It is in large part because of them that I can call Molly my partner and even strangers understand I do not mean we own a business together.

It was in reading of Martin’s death, though, that I realized being a partner pales in comparison to being a wife. The deep bond symbolized by “wife” speaks more fully to Lyon’s sense of loss than being a partner ever can.

Lyon said as much herself when speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle: “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.”

Jill Wagner’s column about the region’s gay community appears weekly. She can be reached at


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