Longtime LGBT Activist Reflects On The Early Days Of Her Advocacy

In 1972, Madeline Davis argued for the Democratic party to embrace gay rights. In this encore broadcast, Davis remembers her historic speech and the evolution of the gay rights movement.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to bring you two conversations now from two very different women who have each, in their own way, had an enormous influence on the way we live our lives today. In a minute we'll hear from the author and conservative icon, Phyllis Schlafly. Her campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment for Women had impact far beyond that legislative fight. But first, we hear from gay-rights activist Madeline Davis. You might've heard that an appeals court last week struck down the ban on same-sex marriage in Oklahoma. That's just one more example of the prominence of gay rights issues in the public sphere today. But in the early 1970s, neither of the two major political parties wanted to have anything to do with that issue - that is until Madeline Davis fought for platform language defending the civil rights of gay people during the Democratic National Convention in 1972. I spoke with her during the 2012 Democratic Convention. And I started by asking her how she prepared herself to go public.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MADELINE DAVIS: There was looking at myself in the mirror and saying, this is where you're leading your life. And I called my mother and said, guess what? My latest lover is a woman. And she said, oh, Madeline, you've done everything else. You know, it's like - that was the end of it. And she met my subsequent girlfriends and my grandmother did and the whole family was OK and it just became a part of my life. So, when this came along, I thought, well, you know, this is really not going to happen. They don't vote for lesbians. And then they did.

MARTIN: And you were there.

DAVIS: And so...

MARTIN: So you went to Miami Beach.

DAVIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that you actually have a copy of your speech, your historic speech, with you.

DAVIS: I do. I just gave it to her.

MARTIN: Do you mind reading a little bit?

DAVIS: If you would like, you can actually hear it.

MARTIN: Oh.

DAVIS: I have the CD...

MARTIN: OK.

DAVIS: ...with Walter Cronkite introducing me.

MARTIN: Really?

DAVIS: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

WALTER CRONKITE: The speaker who has just started is Madeline Davis, a 32-year-old communications worker from Buffalo, New York, who just identified herself as a lesbian. Let's listen.

DAVIS: It's our opportunity to speak to you. Twenty million Americans are grateful and proud of the Democratic Party. We are the minority of minorities. We belong to every race and creed, both sexes, every economic and social level, every nationality and religion. We live in large cities and in small towns, but we are the untouchables in American society. We have suffered the gamut of oppression, from being totally ignored or ridiculed, to having our heads smashed and our blood spilled in the street. Now we are coming out of our closets and onto the convention floor to tell you, the delegates, and to tell all gay people throughout America that we are here to put an end to our fears - our fears that people will know us for who we are - that they will shun and revile us, fire us from our jobs, reject us from our families, evict us from our homes, beat us and jail us. And for what? Because we have chosen to love each other.

I am asking that you vote yes for the inclusion of this minority report into the Democratic platform for two major reasons. First, we must speak to the basic civil rights of all human beings. It is inherent in the American tradition that the private lives and lifestyles of citizens should be both allowed and ensured, so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. A government that interferes with the private lives of its people is a government that is alien to the American tradition and the American dream. You have before you a chance to reaffirm that tradition and that dream. As a matter of practicality, you also have the opportunity to gain the vote of 20 million Americans that will help in November to put a Democrat in the White House.

MARTIN: How did you feel when it was over?

DAVIS: I felt like I was on another planet. But some very nice things happened to me. I came down off the podium and the first thing that happened was this extremely tall, sort of Hispanic-looking man came up to me - he was wearing all black - and he hugged me and he said, you did such a great job. I'm going to take your cause back to my people and make sure that it's something that we deal with because it's not something we've ever really thought about before. And then he took a little pin - a Thunderbird pin - off of his lapel and he pinned it onto my blouse and said thank you very much, and he walked away. And I had no idea who he was. And so I asked and someone told me that he was Caesar Chavez's cousin who had invented the Thunderbird pin for the United Farm Workers.

MARTIN: Wow.

DAVIS: So that was the first incident. And there were things like that that happened all through that convention.

MARTIN: After you spoke, a female delegate from Ohio rebutted your proposed plank. And then in her remarks, she connected homosexuality with prostitution and pedophilia...

MARTIN: ...and then your plank was defeated. What was your takeaway from all of that?

DAVIS: We knew right away - we meaning the gay and lesbian caucus. We were pretty disgusted about the way she did it. We knew, of course, that there was going to be someone who would speak against it. But the way it was done, the words that were used, were pretty horrible. And we wrote a letter of protest. And she wrote a letter saying she was sorry. I have it. Her name was Cathy(ph) Welch and she was from Ohio. And she said, I oppose the plank for reasons of political expediency. The analogies I drew in the speech were aimed to show the possible ramifications of the plank as a political document. I was not aware that the speech would imply that homosexuals are child molesters. Child molestation is largely a heterosexual, not homosexual, problem. I heartily apologize to all members of the Gay Liberation Movement for any other implications which were derived from my speech. And - oh, I will do all in my power to urge Senator McGovern to publicly repudiate the statement as prepared by the platform committee staff and to publicly reaffirm his support for gay civil rights. Well, of course, that wasn't going to happen.

MARTIN: Wow. That's interesting.

DAVIS: Yeah. Yeah. She...

MARTIN: That's all very, you know, layer upon layer of back-story there.

DAVIS: Yeah. It is.

MARTIN: Before we say goodbye, I'd like to ask you the question that we've been asking most of our guests during the last two weeks of political conventions, which is what does a successful country look like?

DAVIS: It is much less angry than this one is. It looks like spring, it looks like hope.

MARTIN: That was gay rights activist Madeline Davis. I spoke with her during the 2012 Democratic National Convention. In case you didn't know, Davis didn't just fight this fight in politics. She was also a singer-songwriter in her own write. What you're hearing now is her tribute to the LGBT movement, a song called "Stonewall Nation."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STONEWALL NATION")

DAVIS: (Singing) You can take your tolerance and stow it. We're going to be ourselves and show it. The Stonewall Nation is gonna be free.

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