A woman who fought for LGBT rights from the McCarthy era to this year’s same-sex marriage breakthrough in California has died.

Del Martin made headlines across the world in June when she and her partner Phyllis Lyon became the first same-sex couple to legally marry in California. They had been together more than 50 years.

Her political awakening began in the 1950s, when she helped establish one of America’s first gay rights groups.

“It’s impossible to overstate Del’s importance in the struggle for LGBT rights and dignity,” said Lambda Legal Senior Counsel Jennifer C. Pizer.

“When she and Phyllis started Daughters of Bilitis, they were nearly alone in Joe McCarthy’s America. Del Martin led the way for all of us who came later.

“Everything we’ve accomplished – marriage rights, anti-discrimination protections in the workplace, even the ability to visit our partners in the hospital – owes a vast debt to her work and example.

“Her quiet, bold courage and steadfast purpose have inspired us for half a century, and will continue to inspire us for many generations more.

“Our thoughts are with Phyllis and their loved ones.”

In 1955 Ms Martin and Ms Lyon helped found America’s first lesbian organisation, the Daughters of Bilitis.

Over the years, Pyllis Lyon and Del Martin became the unofficial ‘poster couple’ of the gay marriage equality movement.

In 2003, filmmaker Joan E. Biren documented their lives in the film No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.

They met in Seattle in 1950 while working for the same magazine.

Two years later, they began a relationship and moved to San Francisco shortly afterward.

Originally a social club for lesbians in San Francisco, Daughters of Bilitis went on to become the first nationally recognised lesbian advocacy group in the United States.

In 2004, after their first marriage was voided by the California Supreme Court, the National
Centre for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Legal, and the American Civil Liberties Union represented them as plaintiffs in the California marriage lawsuit that succeeded this May.

After Ms Martin’s death was announced today Tammy Baldwin, one of only two out LGBT people in the US Congress, paid tribute to her.

“Del Martin holds a place of honour in the pantheon of American civil rights leaders,” she said.

“She was a hero and a role model to me and countless other LGBT women and men who seek nothing more and nothing less than full equality.

“I offer my deep sympathies to her beloved wife, Phyllis, and pledge to carry on the work that they began.”