Madeline Davis, who spoke to the nation as a lesbian, dies aged 80
“I’m a woman and a lesbian, a minority of minorities,” Madeline Davis said at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. “Now we’re coming out of our cupboards and onto the conference floor.”
That speech was heard by few outside the Miami Beach Convention Center, delivered just after 5 a.m. on July 12, and the party plank she and other gay and lesbian delegates supported – a proposal to introduce anti-discrimination laws to protect gays and lesbians Americans – failed.
But it was still a turning point for lesbian and gay rights. On entering the podium, Ms. Davis, who died April 28 at the age of 80, became the first openly lesbian delegate to a national political convention in the United States. Together with Jim Foster, a gay delegate from San Francisco, she spoke to an increasingly progressive party that would nominate George S. McGovern, the liberal senator from South Dakota, for president.
In 2012, after the Democratic Party first added the language about marriage equality to its platform, Ms. Davis reflected on her pioneering work decades earlier in an interview with NPR. “I’ve been working for gay rights for 40 years,” she said, “so after a long journey I came across this information and thought, isn’t that nice?”
She died of complications from a stroke at her home in Amherst, NY, near Buffalo, said her wife, Wendy Smiley.
Ms. Davis began engaging with the lesbian community in 1957, though it didn’t come out until the 1960s, she told The Empty Closet, a gay publication based in Rochester, NY, in 2004. She started writing folk songs early on as well and later added homosexual liberation hymns to her repertoire.
One of them was “Stonewall Nation”, a tribute to the 1969 New York uprising, which is seen as the catalyst for the gay rights movement. The song, which is played with a lively voice reminiscent of Joan Baez, contains the line âYou can take your intolerant and shove itâ.
“I went to the first march I took in 1971 and was so excited by the experience that I wrote the words for ‘Stonewall Nation’ in my notebook on the way home,” Ms. Davis told the radio show and website. Queer Music Heritage âin 2012.
Her work with gay rights groups caught the attention of the New York State Democratic Party, who named her as a delegate to the national congress of her congressional district in Buffalo, which Senator McGovern had promised. The New York Times mentioned her as one of “five self-proclaimed homosexuals” who would attend as New York State delegates or proxies.
Ms. Davis later taught the Lesbianism 101 course at the State University of New York in Buffalo. She described it as the first university course on lesbian history and culture.
She wrote Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold with Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, which traces the history of the Buffalo lesbian community. It won a Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Studies in 1994.
Ms. Davis’s main occupation was a librarian; she eventually became the chief restorer and director of conservation in the Buffalo and Erie County’s public library system.
Madeline Dorothy Davis was born on July 7, 1940 in Buffalo to Joe and Harriet (Morris) Davis. Her mother worked in the Erie County’s Social Services department. Her father worked at a Ford Motor Company plant where he was a union organizer.
Ms. Davis attended Bennett High School in Buffalo and graduated in 1958. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in library science from SUNY Buffalo.
Ms. Davis was married to Allen Romano in the 1960s. The marriage lasted three years. When she came out as a lesbian in the early 1960s, her family took it “very casually,” she told Playboy magazine in 1973 (for an article titled “New Sexual Lifestyles”) and her counterculture friends she easily accepted.
She met Ms. Smiley in 1974 after performing in a cafe, and they met again 20 years later at a community seder, Ms. Smiley said in her laudatory speech.
Ms. Davis and Ms. Smiley held four marriage ceremonies in the years before the state recognized their association; the last to make it legal was held at the Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo in 2011. “And then we agreed, enough is enough,” said Ms. Smiley. They were together for 28 years.
In addition to Mrs. Smiley, Mrs. Davis leaves behind her sister Sheila Davis.
In 2001, Ms. Davis established an archive of LGBTQ history for the Buffalo area. Originally housed in the basement of Ms. Davis and Ms. Smiley, it was donated to SUNY Buffalo in 2009. In 2016, Ms. Davis received an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York.
After suffering a stroke in January, Ms. Davis received more than $ 30,000 for home care through an online fundraiser. “Thank you for a lifelong important work,” wrote one donor.
Much of this work began in the wee hours of a July morning in Miami Beach in 1972 when she was speaking into a convention hall microphone so that gay and lesbian Americans could finally be heard.
“I gave this speech,” she told Playboy, “because I knew there were gays at 4am who would sit in front of their TVs and wait for one of their own people to get up.”