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The Useful and Beautiful Life of Danny Winter

Photo courtesy of Garrett King, a.k.a. Vanity Vogue.

When Danny Winter, widely known by his drag persona, Vicky Vogue, died on February 18 at the age of 77, Buffalo lost a marvelous entertainer, a dedicated gay rights activist, and a powerful link to its gay history.

In recalling Buffalo’s gay scene in the early 1950s, Danny once observed, “We were working-class faggots, not as sophisticated as in New York or San Francisco. One of my brothers and I would take a bus from Fillmore and Utica, and head downtown to Ryan’s Hotel Niagara. That was 1953. I don’t know how we heard about it, but it was a place where gay people would go. The building no longer exists. Buffalo in the ’50s was known for its gay bars. People would come to Buffalo from Toronto to be part of the scene. My brother and I didn’t do drag, but we’d do gender-bender stuff. We’d dye our hair and wear makeup. We’d wear angora sweaters. I was 19. It was teen rebellion.”Winter recalls that they paid a price for such rebellion.

“Getting beaten up was routine. Guys would drive by to see the ‘queers.’ There was a chain restaurant across the street from Ryan’s called Deco’s where these guys would sit at the window seats and hassle people who were going into the bar.”

Despite episodes of oppression from outside the gay community, Winter’s memories of gay Buffalo of the 1950s and 1960s were very positive.

“My political awareness was formed from the idea that there is safety in numbers,” he said. “In those days, we were just interested in not being hassled, and in being able to dance with another man. You could actually be arrested for that. Then in the ’60s there was a gay center at Main and Utica that was open seven days a week and run by volunteers. There’s a MacDonald’s there now. We had weekend dances there, and I have vivid and wonderful memories of the place. It was a wonderful celebration of being gay—something we could not do on the street.”

For many who were around during the burgeoning days of Buffalo gay activism in the 1970s, all roads lead to the gay community center that once existed above a working tire store at Main and Utica.

“I first met Danny there in 1973,” recalls activist-historian-artist Madeline Davis, a longtime friend of Winter, who is herself an iconic figure in the Western New York GLBT community. “We were in the Buffalo Mattachine Society [a local chapter of the nation’s oldest gay rights organization]. I was teaching a class on suicide prevention, training people to answer phones on a hotline, and Danny was in the group. I immediately noticed that he was very perceptive, very funny, and that he took this work very very seriously.”

Davis would learn that both of Danny’s gay brothers had committed suicide and that Danny struggled with demons of his own.

“It seemed sometimes that Danny was always happy and silly and frivolous,” observes Davis, “until you were in a conversation with him, and suddenly you could see his inner sadness.”

In the 1980s, Winter invented the joyful persona of Vicky Vogue for himself, an outrageous, big-wigged and bejeweled drag alter ego. In that guise, he could seem all fun, good times, happy-go-lucky mirth, but the character had deeply serious underpinnings.

“His life experience informed his drag performances,” says Tim Denesha, also a friend of Winter since the early 1970s. “I also met Danny back at the old gay community center. Injustice drove him crazy, particularly when it involved any sexual minority. He was one of six children, five boys and a girl. Their father was an alcoholic and Danny would stand up to him all the time. As a consequence, he would get knocked around all the time. It made him fearless and purposeful. If you notice, the appearances of Vicky Vogue were always tied in some way to charity or activism—it was never just fun.”

Danny wrote for a number of gay publications over the years, including Fifth Freedom and the Gaywatch column for Artvoice. Twice, he was Empress of the Imperial Court of Buffalo, the local chapter of a national GLBT organization that raises funds for local charities.

Danny’s own account of his life substantiates the assessment of his old friends.

“I think my brothers’ suicides had a lot to do with their oppression,” he once said. “The stories of their deaths were very much alike. They were stories of loneliness, of not belonging. In both cases, the situation was complicated by alcohol. I’m an alcoholic, too. I haven’t had a drink since 1982. But I think the difference between my brothers and me is that they both were beautiful, and I wasn’t. Physical beauty is more important in our society than we like to admit. I think being physically attractive made them more fragile. I was tougher.”

As Vicky, Danny achieved an oversized kind of beauty, what Tim Moran of Outcome, Buffalo’s gay newspaper, describes as Carol Channing crossed with Virginia Graham and a dash of Dame Edna. And while Danny was known for his gentle demeanor, he was, indeed, tough.

Photo courtesy of Garrett King, a.k.a. Vanity Vogue.

“He brought a unique perspective within the gay community,” says Davis. “After you got to know Danny, you could see beneath this outer shell of happiness and silliness, and get a glimpse of Danny making an effort just to hold it together. He was a very strong person, and a very brave person who had overcome all the pain in his life—and there had been a lot. He held it very close.

“I think Danny saw it as his mission to make us happier and to like ourselves more,” Davis continues. “He wanted us to be happy enough, and therefore strong enough to do the very difficult work ahead for gay liberation. That’s what we called it in those days—‘gay liberation.’”

For Danny, being happy was a very serious business. Javier Bustillos, founder and artistic director of Buffalo United Artists, Buffalo’s GLBT theater, recalls being at Gay Pride parade when Danny, dressed in full Vicky Vogue regalia, took pity on a protester holding a placard claiming that “God Hates Fags!”

“Danny saw this guy and said, ‘I’m going to talk to him,’” Bustillos recalls. “Chevon Davis [the noted drag performer] tried to talk him out of it. But Danny insisted. He went over and talked to the guy, asking him, ‘Why do you feel so much hate toward us?’ It probably made no difference, but at the very least, a drag queen had engaged that guy in a normal conversation.”

Davis is familiar with the behavior.

“I think Danny used the Vicky persona not just to entertain but to teach,” she observes. “Vicky Vogue could bring something out of people that they didn’t even know was inside. When Vicky engaged someone, she would first satisfy their curiosity for making contact with someone different, but she would then inspire respect for that difference.”

Danny used the Vicky persona to connect with other GLBT people and opponents of GLBT rights alike. He also felt a strong need to connect with young people. Artvoice business manager Deborah Ellis recalls Vicky Vogue making a happy connection of that nature to her daughter with Artvoice publisher Jamie Moses, Sarah.

“Danny loved children,” recalls Ellis. “Once, when my daughter, Sarah, was just out of diapers and very proud that she was wearing ‘big girl’ pants under her dress, we were at a party and Sarah kept pulling her dress up so everyone could see her ‘big girl’ pants—very inappropriate. I was having no luck getting her to keep her dress down. Well, Vicky Vogue was there, dressed entirely in gold. She looked down at Sarah, and with grandmotherly imperiousness she said, ‘Sarah Moses! A lady always keeps her dress down…in public!’ Sarah was stunned, and oblivious to the possible double entendre—but she kept her dress down for the rest of the party. It took a drag queen to teach my daughter how to be a lady!”

“Danny could charm almost anyone,” agrees Davis. “Even out of drag, Danny projected an air of flippancy that served to charm the people around him. I think that he knew that he was gentling the atmosphere. That’s one thing that I think of when I think of Danny: Inside he was tough, but the part that you could see was so gentle!

“He would call me and say, ‘Okay, what’s the good gossip?’ Not to demean anyone, but to stay connected to the community. It was always for fun and always positive and often ending with, ‘Do they need help? Do we need to reach out to them?’

“And Danny had friends. Really true, strong friends. People who loved him. Yes, there were people who knew him as an entertainer and who admired him, but more importantly, he had friends who genuinely loved him.”

While Danny cultivated his friends over a lifetime, he also knew that there were enemies about.

“I worked for Niagara Mohawk in customer relations for 45 years,” he would explain. “I nearly lost my job because I was ‘obvious.’ My best friend at work was arrested at the bus station. Gay men would go there to cruise. In those days, if vice arrested you, they came to your job and told your boss. His life was ruined. They wanted to fire me, too. My immediate supervisor intervened and saved my job. It was the mentality of the McCarthy era. If you associated with a communist, you were one too. They were going to purge society of everything they thought was evil.”

Danny was famed for his love of shopping and his astonishing drag wardrobe. At its peak his collection was meticulously catalogued, jewelry in neatly organized plastic containers, “Pearls,” “Diamonds,” and so forth. He was known for his generosity, and many a full-figured gal has appeared in Vicky Vogue gowns on the stages of Buffalo’s theaters. The sales staff in the women’s department at the old Jenss department store knew him well and gave him attentive service.”

Toward the end, Danny did not take good care of himself, and faced death with both toughness and gentle grace.

“I was his healthcare proxy,” says Denesha. “He did not take care of himself. He smoked and he did not watch his health. He fell a few times, and so Hospice brought him in for evaluation. They determined that he could no longer live alone safely. He said he would kill himself before he’d go into nursing care, and when they asked if he had a plan for that, he just said he’d find a way. I have no doubt that he made a decision to die. He stopped eating. Danny had seen his wife Irene live in nursing care for five years.”

Irene had been Danny’s best friend; she knew he was gay and the marriage was a “lavender arrangement” of sorts.

“At one point Danny asked how he could move this along,” Denesha says. “I told him, ‘Talk to Irene.’ He nodded.

“Danny had five cats and I’d take them in to see him. The last time I visited, as I was leaving he said to me, ‘All will be well. I love you. God bless you.’ Those were his last words to me. That’s not a bad way to end a 40-year friendship.’

The end came quietly. Garrett King, Danny’s official “drag daughter,” who performs as Vanity Vogue, was there along with very close friend Harry Schroeder. “It was very peaceful,” says Garrett.

Two memorial events are planned. On March 11 at 3pm, the Undergound bar (274 Delaware Avenue) will host a drag show to benefit the Cheektowaga Hospice facility that cared for Danny. On April 21 at 4pm, there will be a memorial celebration of Danny’s life at Hamlin House (432 Franklin Street) followed by “Vicky Vogue style Vaudeville” organized by Vanity Vogue, starting at 6pm.

Danny himself provided what might be the best testament to his importance to the Buffalo GLBT community. Asked if he felt he had made a contribution to quality of life that gay people enjoy in Buffalo, Winter emphatically replied, “Yes! I feel pride in that my life has been useful and beautiful.”

Who would disagree?

Still from the film "Swimming With Lesbians," directed by David Marshall.