Madeline Davis: The Incalculable Value Of A Lesbian Legend’s Life

Photo: Madeline Davis (third from left) and her co-author, Liz Kennedy (far left) gives a presentation at the archives bearing her name in fall 2018, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the publication of Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold. Photo credit: Amanda Killian.

“We want to make sure that this next stage of Madeline’s life is as free from fear and full of love as our whole lives have been because of her.”

For she walks in boots of leather

And in slippers made of gold;

She will be a child forever

And forever, she’ll be old.

She’s the heroine of legends; 

She’s the eagle and the dove.

She’s the daughter of the moon;

She’s my sister and my love. 

– “Boots of Leather,” Madeline Davis [1974]

Madeline Davis is an archivist, activist, author, educator, musician, Reiki master, and an all-round lesbian legend, who really ought to be a household name throughout the country. 

The octogenarian has a list of accolades as long as a lesbian’s little black book. Some of her most pioneering achievements: she designed Lesbianism 101, the first course on lesbianism taught in a major U.S. university back in 1972; Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, the first comprehensive history of a lesbian community co-authored with Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy; she composed the first gay liberation song Stonewall Nation; and she was the first openly lesbian delegate to the National Democratic Convention in 1972.

The latter of these firsts is particularly notable considering that Davis was a Beatnik in her late teens who saw little hope in politics. Working her way through college singing folk and jazz in coffee houses, she was “part of that group that walked around in black turtleneck sweaters with slim volumes of poetry, most of which was horrendous,” Davis said in a 2004 interview in her home in Buffalo, New York. “We thought the government was useless,” she said, “and anarchy was the best, and who even knew what that meant.”

Things changed in 1970, when gay activist group The Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier launched in Buffalo. Davis’ then-partner was at a meeting, while the cool cat with the Beat poetry book waited outside. “I was bored, so I stopped in at the meeting,” said Davis. And the rest is lesbian activism history; “I was absolutely hooked,” she said.  

Fast forward two years and the apolitical turtleneck-wearer was running to be a delegate of the Democratic Convention. “They asked me why I wanted to be a delegate,” she recalled. “Well, I’m a lesbian, and gay men and lesbians have never been represented at a Convention and it’s time our needs were heard.”

Davis speaks (and sings) in tender and ethereal tones, using clear and candid language while managing to retain power and conviction in her words (all those years digesting Beat poetry paid off). “Madeline is this literal person who we got to know and hang out with, but also this kind of radiating symbolic figure,” says Ana Grujic, a local queer historian who spoke with GO alongside her partner Adrienne Hill over Zoom the other week. The couple recently launched a fundraiser for Davis, who tragically suffered a stroke at the start of 2021. As historians who’ve spent many hours learning from and laughing with Davis, Grujic and Hill’s admiration for Davis and her legacy are clear. “No matter how much I talk to her, I always remain a little bit star-struck,” says Hill.

So why aren’t there coffee table books, Netflix series and countless articles celebrating this living legend? Well, Davis works in a very different context to most of the activists we’ll be familiar with. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were San Franciscans. Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Edith Windsor and Brenda Howard were all New Yorkers, from New York City. Davis is from Buffalo which is, as she puts it in the 2009 documentary, Swimming With Lesbians, “a working class, impoverished, rustbelt city on the edge of the Midwest. And we have done some amazing things coming out of that context.”

Two of the most widely recognized ‘amazing things’ from Buffalo are Leslie Feinberg’s “Stone Butch Blues” (set there), and Davis’ impressive archives. “Buffalo has one of the biggest LGBTQ+ archives in the country; it’s New York City, L.A., San Francisco, then Buffalo because of what Madeline Davis has done,” says Hill. “If you want to know how LGBTQ+ movements are built in a mid-size city, Buffalo is where you go. We have those resources because she put them there.” 

And Davis certainly loved the archives. “To collect this community’s history is really so important,” she said in 2004, “and I love doing it, I love going over the papers, I love sitting alone in the archives and just going through people’s papers, just reading and remembering things I’ve forgotten about my own life… the archives are an on-going project for me. It will be the last thing I do before I die.”

Davis ensured her archives reflect the complicated reality of queer existence. “She has always been ahead of – or more expansive I think – than whatever the prevailing understanding of LGBTQ+ identity was at the time,” says Hill. A prime example of which can be found in the fact that one of the first documents she accepted for her archives were from a woman named Peggie Ames. “Peggie was a trans woman and a trans-activist living in the country outside of Buffalo in the 1970s,” said Hill. “There’s sometimes this assumption that lesbians who were involved in second wave feminism are universally TERFs but she was very clear on the fact that Peggie’s life history, what Peggie left behind, was important. And in some ways, Peggie’s papers were a real impetus to create the entire archives. It’s because of Madeline we’re not just looking at cis gay white men and women; we know what transgender activism looked like in Buffalo in the 1970s, and that’s an incredible resource.”

With activists like Davis – those with such might, such foresight, such perseverance – it’s hard to imagine them powerless. On January 6th, 2021, with all the world still in Covid-induced disarray, Madeline had a stroke. The tragedy has been intensified over the last few months by a tumultuous concoction of hospitals and rehab centers interspersed with weeks of quarantining. This meant that Madeline spent a lot of that time isolating alone, separated from Wendy Smiley, her primary partner of 25 years and her primary caregiver. “When Madeline’s away from Wendy she just feels completely unmoored and can’t habituate,” says Hill.

At the end of March, the decision was made to bring Davis home, where she could receive home hospice care and be looked after by Smiley, assisted by home healthcare aides.

The story doesn’t end there. This is America, after all, a nation that seemingly hallows profit above all else. In few places is this more apparent than in the intolerably profit-driven healthcare system. Davis’ home hospice care is covered, but the necessary home healthcare aide service is not. This service costs $16,800 per month — a jaw-dropping figure by anyone’s standards. 

And that is where Davis, a dyke whose work has, and will continue to change the game for queers across America (and the world), needs our support. As beautifully put in Davis’ GoFundMe (which has seen contributions from dyke royalty Joan E. Biren, Joan Nestle and Maxine Wolfe), “we want to make sure that this next stage of Madeline’s life is as free from fear and full of love as our whole lives have been because of her.”

Contribute to Madeline’s GoFundMe here. If every one of us gives a little, our community can go a very, very long way.

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