It has been said, “Gays have a past but no history.” Gays and Lesbians don’t grow up immersed in gay history, it is something they must search for.
For those coming of age in the 1950’s, much of significant American gay history is their personal history -- the Mattachine Society, Stonewall, the gay rights movement, psychiatric redefinition of homosexuality, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Romer v. Evens, AIDS, civil unions, marriage -- it’s all in the last 50 years. Swimming with Lesbians is a film that explores an upstate New York community’s efforts to create an LBGT historic archive – led by the extraordinary Madeline Davis. She is determined to see this archive installed in a library or university in Buffalo, but will the straight gatekeepers validate her life work? For Davis, a life-long librarian and keeper of the past, much hangs on that decision. Swimming with Lesbians airs Monday, June 13 at 10:30 p.m. on WXXI-TV/HD (DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11).
Davis was the first openly elected lesbian delegate to speak at the Democratic National Convention. She taught the first Lesbianism course ever offered at a major American university, and she co-authored with Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy a seminal history of blue collar lesbian life, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold.
Shot cinema verite, Swimming with Lesbians shares intimate stories about the lives of the individuals associated with the archive. These stories are interwoven with scenes of Davis at work. She is both guide and subject: the collector and the keeper. She is the story and the storyteller. Davis introduces viewers to Peggy, David, Camille, Tangara, and Vicki.
Peggy had her surgery in 1975, and after that her family declared her dead. There are very few pictures of Peggy; her family destroyed them – but fortunately, a vast store of letters contributed to the archive by her friends paint a vivid picture of her life. Although this is Peggy’s story, it is emblematic of the lives of many others. Peggy knew she was a girl from the age of six, and what’s more, she knew she was a Lesbian. Her decision to have surgery and make a life in the same small Buffalo suburb where she grew up and raised her family ended tragically. Peggy was incredibly strong and determined; she would not be driven out. Portions of her letters are read by Camille, a transgendered woman who found hope in Peggy’s story. “She was a warrior, a fighter, trying to live an authentic life.” Camille transitioned in 2001 and has tried ever since to remain in Buffalo at her job in city government. It has not been easy, and Camille has come to realize she is not Peggy, she is not willing to wait for acceptance. She is leaving Buffalo, her job, home, and family for the west coast. “I want someone to grow old with. I’m 56. I want someone to hold me. I can’t find that here.”
Tangara is a 92-year-old drag queen and a Buffalo institution. He has left all of his material to the archive. Davis and Vicki (a 70-year-old drag queen) introduce us to Tangara. “Tangara was the first drag queen we knew of,” Davis explains. “He offered Straight Buffalo a glimpse of what gay life had to offer.” For Vicki and his two gay brothers, Tangara was an inspiration. “He wasn’t a great dancer, but who cares; he’s up there in a dress; who could ask for anything more?” He remembers working for Mae West and traveling the USA in a Gay Boy Review in the 1930’s. He hopes some day that we won’t have to be afraid any more. Vicki was married to protect him from ridicule.
Davis poignantly summarizes both her personal goal and the film’s goal when she says, “We are ephemeral. We will be gone. This is for the ages.” Swimming with Lesbians asks the viewer to consider that much credit is due to people like Davis and others in the film – people in places like Buffalo, New York – who moved Gay rights out of the Castro and the Village and onto Main Street. Without them, today might look much different.
To learn more about the film, visit: www.swimmingwithlesbians.com