July 7, 1940 – April 28, 2021
They called Madeline Davis a lesbian legend.
A longtime activist for gay rights, she blazed a trail for the understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQ community as a teacher, stage performer, author and historian.
She was a founding member and president of the first gay liberation organization in Western New York, the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier.
She delivered a speech at the first gay march on Albany in 1971.
The following year, when Democrats met in Miami Beach, Fla., to nominate George McGovern, she became the first openly gay delegate to a major political party convention and advocated for a gay rights plank in the platform.
She taught the first course on lesbianism in the nation at the University at Buffalo.
A founding member of Hag Theater, the first all-lesbian theater company in the United States, she acted in several of its productions.
She and UB professor Dr. Elizabeth L. Kennedy researched and authored a landmark account of the lives of gay working women in Buffalo, “Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community.”
Her research became the foundation for what has become the Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archive of Western New York at SUNY Buffalo State and she served as its director.
Ms. Davis died Wednesday in her Amherst home after suffering a stroke in January. She was 80.
Born in Buffalo, Madeline D. Davis was the oldest of three children and grew up the East Side. Her father was an assembly line worker for Ford and her mother, a homemaker, had gone to nursing school. She was a 1958 graduate of Bennett High School, where she was an honor student and worked all four years on the yearbook.
While at Bennett, she got a job putting books away in the North Jefferson Branch Library.
“I loved it,” she told Buffalo News feature writer Louise Continelli in 1993. “It thrilled me to be able to hold the potential for learning in my hands.”
While she was attended UB on a scholarship, she worked as a page in the college’s Lockwood Library.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in library science, she began working for the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library and became its chief conservator, overseeing the arrival and repair of tens of thousands of books and other materials. She directed a department of about 30 people.
During college, she adopted a beatnik style and began folk singing. She performed in coffeehouses here and in New York City, Toronto, Seattle and San Francisco. She went on to be the lead singer in a jazz-rock group, the New Chicago Lunch, and later formed the Madeline Davis Group.
She became aware of her attraction to women in the 1960s, but the first time she got married, it was to a man. He was tolerant of her sexuality, she told Continelli, and broke up for other reasons.
“I spent my energies trying to be what I was supposed to be while still being irresistibly drawn to what I was,” she said.
When Ms. Davis married again in 1995, her partner was Wendy Smiley, a telephone company telecommunications technician. They had known each other since Smiley came here from Albany in 1974 and saw Ms. Davis singing in a coffeehouse. The ceremony, the first of its kind in Temple Beth Zion, took place in the main sanctuary.
“It was a big wedding, it was wonderful,” Smiley said, “but it just wasn’t legal in New York State.”
They repeated their vows four more times – in a pagan ceremony in Cherry Creek, in a civil ceremony in Vermont in 1997, in a ceremony legal in Canada at Two Hearts Wedding Chapel in Niagara Falls, Ont., in 2006, and finally back in Temple Beth Zion in 2011 after New York approved same-sex marriages.
“I want to be married in my own country and be legal in my own country,” Smiley said. “After that, five times was enough.”
Ms. Davis began concentrated research into local lesbian history in 1978 when she taught a course at UB with Kennedy while she was working on a second master’s degree in American studies. That led to the founding of the Buffalo Women’s Oral History Project and a 14-year-long effort collecting and compiling interviews with 45 older lesbians.
Published in 1994, “Boots of Leather” received the Lambda Literary Award, the Ruth Benedict Award for urban anthropology and the Jessie Bernard Award from the American Sociological Association.
In 2013, the Buffalo History Museum presented her with its Owen Augspurger Award for her work in preserving Erie County heritage.
At the time of her death, she was collecting oral histories of the elders in Buffalo's LGBTQ community, accompanied by photos by Keith Gemerek, whose photo of her appears here, in a project sponsored by CEPA Gallery.
She also wrote numerous articles on sexuality and women’s history, along with short stories and poetry.
Her work as a political activist continued with the Mattachine Society in the 1970s, when she invited political candidates to discuss gay issues for the first time and challenged the Buffalo police over entrapment and raids on gay bars.
She organized a Pride workshop in 1973, which evolved into PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), assisting those who support LGBT people. More recently, she was vice president for community liaison for Stonewall Democrats.
In 1971, she recorded the nation’s first gay anthem, “Stonewall Nation,” and composed 45 songs, most with gay or lesbian themes. For many years, she organized benefit concerts for the gay community and performed at them.
In 1994, she co-founded the Black Triangle Women’s Percussion Ensemble and later performed with another percussion group, Drawing Down the Moon.
As a member of Buffalo United Artists, she was nominated for an Artie Award in 1993 for her role in a one-woman drama, “Cookin’ with Typhoid Mary.” She also received the David DeMarie Entertainer of the Year Award in 1988.
She became a Reiki master, practicing hands-on healing, specializing in animals. She and her wife did rescue work for Keeshond dogs.
Concerned about her health, she underwent gastric bypass surgery in 2000, lost 140 pounds and changed her lifestyle.
“Every day, she takes her two dogs on long walks,” Buffalo News reporter Deidre Williams wrote in 2008. “She takes tai chi and works out on a stationary bicycle three times a week. As a result, some of her prescriptions have been reduced.”
She also founded a GBS support group that expanded into 13 branches in four counties.
She was the subject of a 2009 documentary film, “Swimming with Lesbians,” and was inducted into The Advocate magazine’s Hall of Fame in 2012.
Then-State Sen. Byron W. Brown arranged for proclamation of Madeline D. Davis Day in New York State on April 25, 2004. She served as grand marshal of Buffalo’s annual Pride Parade in 2009.
She moved from Buffalo to Kenmore in 1990 to care for her ailing mother and had been an Amherst resident since 2006. Her pastimes included gardening and quilting.
In addition to her wife, survivors include a sister, Sheila E. Davis.
Memorial services will be held at 1 p.m. Friday in Amherst Memorial Chapel, 281 Dodge Road, Getzville.