Wisdom Watch
12:05 pm
Wed September 5, 2012

In 1972, Davis Blazed Party Trail On Gay Rights

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I had some thoughts about why we so love to show our scars. We, meaning the public and our leaders. That's my Can I Just Tell You essay and it's in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work and, in this political season, we're talking with a political pioneer.

At the 1972 Democratic National Convention, Madeline Davis asked for something that had never been proposed at a major party convention. In a floor speech, the New York delegate asked her fellow Democrats to endorse platform language defending the civil rights of gay people. And now, 40 years later, marriage equality has been adopted as a plank in the 2012 Democratic Party platform.

So we thought this would be a good time to check in with Ms. Davis. Madeline Davis, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

MADELINE DAVIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Can I ask you to go back and say - how did you get picked for this opportunity? Or did you see it as an opportunity?

DAVIS: Oh, I absolutely saw it as an opportunity, and I got picked due to the efforts of a professor named Jim Zais, Z-A-I-S, who taught at the University of Buffalo. He taught political science and he called me up. It was early spring of '72. It was 11 o'clock at night and he said, are you a registered Democrat? And I said, no. And he said, well, you're not a Republican, are you? And I said, no. And he said, are you Independent? I said, no. He said, well, what's going on? I said, I'm not registered at all.

I guess my defense is that, for years prior to getting involved in managing, I had been a librarian and a beatnik folk singer and, therefore, anti-establishment and I wasn't going to get involved in party politics. He said, I want you to go down to the Board of Elections tomorrow morning and register to vote as a Democrat. We're going to run you for delegate to the Democratic convention.

MARTIN: OK. Just like that? OK.

DAVIS: This is after no involvement in party politics at all. So I did. I - like a good little soldier, I went down and registered as a Democrat and, immediately, the gay community started walking around getting petitions, getting signatures and the ballots came in like a month later and there I was on the ballot.

MARTIN: We're making it sound like a lark here, but this was a very different era for gay rights and for gay and lesbian Americans at that time. I mean, at the time of your speech, homosexuality was still classified as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM. In some states, same-sex activity was a crime.

DAVIS: Yes.

MARTIN: And I just have to ask. Were you afraid at all of identifying yourself in this public way and speaking out about this issue in such a public way?

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: If you've just joined us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with Madeline Davis. In 1972, she was the first openly lesbian delegate to a major national political convention. She also offered the first proposed language embracing LGBT rights at that convention.

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

DAVIS: Mm-hmm.

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: Yeah. You know, so - and as we mentioned, this year's Democratic platform embraced same-sex marriage rights, which you weren't even asking for at that time. I mean you were basically saying, please stop discriminating against us, stop firing us from jobs, stop, you know, signaling us out for criminal prosecution. You weren't even asking for marriage equality at that point.

DAVIS: That's right.

MARTIN: Now the platform embraces that. Do you remember when you heard that that was the case and how do you feel about it?

DAVIS: First of all, you have to know, I've been working in gay rights for 40 years. So I came to this information after a long journey. And I thought - isn't that nice?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: I thought, well, it took such a long time for them to do this. And then I started washing the dishes. And...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: And I went back to talk to my wife Wendy and I said, did you hear, they put marriage equality in the Democratic platform? She said, oh yeah, I just heard it a little while ago. And neither one of us had that oh, isn't that wonderful, reaction. It's just another steppingstone for us. Now first of all, we have to elect Obama. And then they have to get rid of DOMA. And then they're going to try and put this in place and the states are going to rebel and take it to the court. And then all the levels of the courts, right up to the Supreme Court, will have to judge this.

Now how many years away is that going to be? So I can't get excited yet. I'm 72 years old. It's quite possible - if not probable - that I will not see this in my lifetime.

MARTIN: Does that hurt?

DAVIS: Oh. I don't think it hurts. It's sad, but life goes on. And thank God there are younger people now who are taking up this cause and doing a wonderful job. And I can rest a little and watch them.

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: Madeline Davis is an activist for LGBT rights. She introduced the first LGBT-friendly language to the Democratic Party platform in 1972. And Madeline Davis joined us from NOR member station WNED in Buffalo, New York.

Madeline Davis, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAVIS: And thank you very much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, Madeline Davis is also a former singer and songwriter. And here is part of her song about the gay rights movement "Stonewall Nation."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STONEWALL NATION")

DAVIS: (Singing) ...see you can if you're taller and (unintelligible). We're going to be ourselves and love it. Stonewall Nation is going to be free. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.