Madeline Davis was an American lesbian activist, reiki master, educator, musician, and historian who made concrete, astounding contributions to lesbian and gay rights, representation, and welfare.
Madeline was a founding member of the Mattachine Society (Niagara frontier), she became the first openly lesbian delegate to speak at the Democratic National Convention, she taught the first lesbian course in the United States, helped kickstart the first lesbian-only theater company in the United States, and wrote on lesbian history. She passed away on the 28th of April, 2021.
The Mattachine Society, Niagara Frontier, was founded in 1970. It was the first gay rights organization in Western New York and was formed in response to the Stonewall Riots. James “Jim” Garrow was another founding member, and notable member of the gay community, who owned Tiki, a Polynesian-themed gay bar, which was raided and closed by the State Liquor Authority (SLA).
While tension between the police and gay community has always existed, Buffalo had a bustling gay bar scene before the 1960s. “Corruption within the Buffalo Police Department allowed bar owners to pay off Bureau of Vice Investigation officers to avoid harassment, liquor license violations, and closure,” according to Medium. But, by 1969 — around the time of Stonewall — the police were unrelenting.
Gay men and lesbians were outraged by the Tiki raids, especially because “Garrow’s homosexual arrest record [was cited] as the primary reason for termination.” It prompted Buffalo’s gay and lesbian community to resist oppression and organize for their liberation. While this action was inspired by Stonewall, it was “primarily responding to immediate concerns within their city.”
Kenneth P. Kennedy, a devout Catholic who captained the Buffalo Bureau of Vice Enforcement, was described as a throwback to the McCarthy Era by Don Michaels, a Buffalo activist. The Mattachine Society was founded in response to the increasing corruption and brutality from the Buffalo police towards its gay and lesbian members of society.
In 1972, Madeline Davis became the first openly lesbian delegate to speak at the Democratic National Convention. Despite being a Beatnik in her teens, “who saw little hope in politics,” and worked “her way through college singing folk and jazz in coffee houses,” she was drawn into lesbian activism through The Mattachine Society. She went to a meeting with an ex partner when she was “bored” – she was too cool for that sort of stuff – but was hooked on lesbian activism from that moment on.
Once an anarchist, she now saw the point in political engagement and in-house resistance. “They asked me why I wanted to be a delegate,” she is quoted as saying by Go Mag. “Well, I’m a lesbian,” she responded, “and gay men and lesbinas have never been represented at a Convention and it’s time our needs were heard.” Madeline took inspiration from Buffalo itself, which she said in the 2009 documentary, Swimming With Lesbians, is “a working class, impoverished, rustbelt city on the edge of the Midwest. And we have done some amazing things coming out of that context.”
In the same year, 1972, Madeline taught the first United States course on lesbianism — “Lesbianism 101” — at the University of Buffalo. She was a woman breaking the mold, of saying and creating things that were previously unheard of. “Madeline [was] this literal person who we got to know and hang out with, but also this kind of radiating symbolic figure,” Ana Grujic, LGBT historian, said to GO. “No matter how much I talk to her, I always remain a little bit star-struck.”
In 1993, Madeline co-authored Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community, which focused on lesbians in Buffalo, between the 1930s-1960s. The book “draws upon the oral histories of 45 women,” and is “the first comprehensive history of a working-class lesbian community.” The book won many awards, including from the American Sociological Association, the American Anthropological Association, and the Lambda Literary Foundation.
Madeline Davis helped kickstart the HAG Theatre Company in 1994, which was the first lesbian-only theater company in the United States. Buffalo News describes a 2002 production called “A Rustle of Wings,” about a “sweet young [woman] Mira,” who “falls desperately in love with a woman who sports a small pair of wings on her back.”
Madeline Davis brought lesbian art and culture to the forefront of a working class community. She unapologetically claimed her right, as a lesbian, to teach about lesbianism, represent lesbians in politics, resist homophobia, and organize with other gay men and lesbians to do the same.
Thank you, Madeline Davis.