“I am a woman and a lesbian, a minority of minorities,” Madeline Davis told the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. “Now we are coming out of our closets and onto the convention floor.”
That speech was heard by few outside the Miami Beach Convention Center, delivered just after 5 a.m. on July 12, and the party platform plank that she and other gay and lesbian delegates were supporting — a proposal to enact anti-discrimination statutes to protect gay and lesbian Americans — did not pass.
But it was still a watershed day for lesbian and gay rights. In taking the dais, Davis, who died April 28 at age 80, stood as the first openly lesbian delegate to a national political convention in the United States. Along with Jim Foster, a gay delegate from San Francisco, she spoke to an increasingly progressive-leaning party that would nominate George McGovern, the liberal senator from South Dakota, for president.
In 2012, after the Democratic Party had included in its platform, for the first time, language about marriage equality, Davis reflected on her pioneering efforts decades earlier in an interview with NPR. “I’ve been working in gay rights for 40 years,” she said, “so I came to this information after a long journey, and I thought, Isn’t that nice?”
She died at her home in Amherst, New York, near Buffalo, from complications of a stroke, her wife, Wendy Smiley, said.
Davis began engaging with the lesbian community in 1957, although she did not come out until the 1960s, she told The Empty Closet, a gay publication based in Rochester, New York, in 2004. She began writing and performing folk songs early, and later added gay-liberation anthems to her repertoire.
One was “Stonewall Nation,” a tribute to the 1969 uprising in New York that has been credited with sparking the gay rights movement. The song, performed in a lilting voice reminiscent of Joan Baez, includes the line “You can take your intolerance and shove it.”