Madeline Davis: Lesbian Delegate

Day 14 of the Pride 30 Project for Pride Month, 2018.

Madeline Davis was a writer and musician from a young age, but did not find her voice until she came out. Though she began hanging out in Western New York’s gay scene in the 1950s, she did not identify as a lesbian until the 1960s. By the early 1970s, Davis was a full-fledged activist for gay rights. She participated in her first gay rights march in 1971, when gays and lesbians from cities across New York converged in the state capitol in Albany.

The 1971 March on Albany for gay rights represented a rare moment when Buffalo gay rights activism — not often considered a significant part of the broader Gay Rights Movement — intersected with the story of the movement most often told. New York City-based activist groups such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), Radicalesbians, and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) protested alongside the Buffalo, New York chapter of the Mattachine Society. Among those present were Karla Jay of GLF and Radicalesbians, Jim Owles of GAA, and Sylvia Rivera of GLF and STAR.

In Albany, Davis also spoke alongside other gay luminaries such as Kate Millett, a writer and leading member of the second wave Women’s Movement who had recently come out as bisexual. Millett’s presence at the march was significant for the emerging Gay Rights and Women’s Movements. Only a year earlier, in 1970, she was pressured by an audience member at a women’s liberation talk at Columbia University to publicly state she was a lesbian. She later clarified, in a 1970 Time magazine article entitled “Women’s Lib: A Second Look,” she identified as bisexual. Millett was hesitant to come not because she thought being gay was shameful, but feared doing so would discredit her as a voice for women’s liberation by furthering the stereotype that all feminists were man-hating lesbians whose ideas could be easily dismissed. She would later discuss her bisexuality explicitly in her 1974 memoir Flying.

The march spanned the length of two days; a protest on the first was followed by a day of gay and lesbian New Yorkers lobbying the state legislature on behalf of gay rights. On the car ride back to Buffalo, Davis, energized from attending her first gay rights demonstration, wrote two things in her notebook: the lyrics to a song and a poem. The song, entitled “Stonewall Nation,” recorded in 1973 with financing from the Mattachine Society, is credited as the first Gay Liberation record. Davis also recorded a spoken word version of her poem, “From the Steps of the Capital, 1971,” for the B-side of the Stonewall Nation record. Craig Rodwell, a gay rights activist and founder of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, America’s first gay and lesbian bookstore, reportedly played the record in the store every June to commemorate the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Inn Riots. Those perusing the shelves heard Davis sing pointed lyrics such as: “You can take your tolerance and shove it / We’re gonna be ourselves and love it / The Stonewall Nation is gonna be free.”

The April 11th, 1973 edition of The Advocate, at that time more of a newsletter then the stylish magazine it is today, also reported on “Stonewall Nation.” Though the article questions if such a thing as “gay culture” actually existed, it recognized the emergence of gay-themed folk and protest music, citing both Davis and Maxine Feldman’s gay rights anthem “Angry Atthis.” Feldman’s song, titled after a lover of the poet Sappho, laments the fact she cannot be open with her lover in public and dispels stereotypes of lesbians: “It’s not your wife that I want / It’s not your children I’m after / It’s not my choice that I want to flaunt / I just want to hear my lover’s laughter.” The song’s title also holds a dual meaning and can be read as “Angry Atthis,” or, “Angry At This.”

Davis was an early member of the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier, founded in 1970, and served as the organization’s vice president and president. Consistent with other gay activist efforts from the early 1970s, Davis, as part of Mattachine’s Political Action Committee, confronted the Buffalo police department regarding raids on local gay bars and lobbied the Buffalo News to cease printing the names of gays and lesbians arrested for misdemeanors during raids. Davis taught the first class focused on lesbian issues at an American University, titled “Lesbianism 101,” in 1972 at the University at Buffalo. She offered a revised version of the class in 1978, retitled as “Woman + Woman,” focused on lesbian history. In line with her scholarly activities, Davis was one of the original editors of The Fifth Freedom, a periodic gay newspaper produced by the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier, which ran from 1970 to 1983.

Davis was also involved in national Democratic politics and, in 1972, was the first out lesbian delegate elected to the Democratic National Convention (DNC), held that year in Miami, Florida, in support of presidential candidate George McGovern. Davis, along with Jim Foster of San Francisco, an openly gay man, was the first lesbian to address the DNC in a speech urging the party to include gay rights as part of the 1972 Democratic Platform. One year earlier, in 1971, Foster, along with lesbian activists Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon, and Beth Elliott, co-founded the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club in San Francisco, the first organization for gay Democrats in the country.

Though the pair was given a total of twenty minutes to speak, Foster, who went first, did not take the stage until 5 AM on the morning of July 12th. When Davis spoke, at approximately 5:10 AM, she informed the audience that gays and lesbians “suffer the gamut of repression, from being totally ignored to having our heads smashed and our blood spilled in the streets.” She went on to affirm her belief that all Americans deserve basic civil rights — including gays and lesbians. Though gay rights were not formally included in the Democratic Platform that year, that Davis and Foster were allowed to address the DNC at all was a milestone in the consolidation of gay political power.

In 1994, Davis, along with her co-researcher Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, published a pioneering ethnography of Buffalo’s lesbian bar culture entitled Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. The book, based on extensive interviews conducted by Davis and Kennedy with forty-five women, is the first history of a working-class lesbian community, spanning from the 1930s to the early 1960s. The bars frequented by Davis and Kennedy’s subjects have all disappeared, as well as lesbian bar culture in Buffalo as a whole. Buffalo’s last lesbian bar, Roxy’s, know for its burlesque striptease performances, closed in 2013 after over a decade in business.

Davis spent her later years assembling an archive in the basement of her house to document gay Western New York History. The archive, titled the Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archive of Western New York, is now housed in the E.H. Butler Library at Buffalo State College (SUNY). “Without preserving the memories of the people who have come before us, our history just goes up in smoke,” Davis said, in an interview with Curve magazine. The archive stands as a testament to the fact that the Gay Rights Movement was not active only in major cities on the east and west coasts.

Davis, in a small way, paved the road for Sarah McBride, the first transgender person to speak at the national convention of a major political party. On July 28th of 2016, McBride took the stage in Philadelphia to address the DNC. “My name is Sarah McBride, and I am a transgender American,” she said. “Four years ago, I came out as transgender… Since then, I have seen that change is possible.” Unlike Jim Foster and Madeline Davis in 1972, she was met with resounding applause. Though it took forty-four years for a transgender person to address the DNC on behalf of LGBTQ rights, what Davis sang in “Stonewall Nation” was correct: “The Stonewall Nation’s / Gonna have its liberation / Wait and see / Just wait and see.”

Madeline Davis’ long career — from protest singer, to poet, to activist, to openly gay delegate, to scholar — represents the vital importance of documenting the legacies of those who came before us upon whose lives our own rest.

“Elton and Ellen are landmark people who have done landmark things, but they are not Adam and Eve,” she said. “People came before them and did some extraordinary things to get us to where we are today.”

Queer History For the People

QHFTP aims to make LGBTQ history and culture available, and accessible, to all. We cannot work effectively for change unless we know where we've been and the history of those made invisible by mainstream narratives.

Jeffry J. Iovannone

Written by

Scholar-activist; Queer thinker; Primary writer for Queer History for the People; Columnist for Th-Ink Queerly. E-mail: QueerHistoryFTP@gmail.com

Queer History For the People

QHFTP aims to make LGBTQ history and culture available, and accessible, to all. We cannot work effectively for change unless we know where we've been and the history of those made invisible by mainstream narratives.

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