Mark A. Davis, mental-health advocate, dies at 64

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Mark Davis photo by Tim Cwiek

Mark A. Davis, a beloved figure in the community and trailblazing mental-health advocate, has died. He was 64 and lived in Queen Village. He died in his apartment Sept. 14 due to multiple health issues that he couldn’t get promptly treated due to the pandemic, friends said.

Davis was known for his warmth, generosity, loyalty, courage and clever wit. He could be flamboyant in drag but very effective as a mental-health advocate. For example, in June 1990, Davis was instrumental in closing the scandal-ridden Philadelphia State Hospital, known as “Byberry.” As a result, former residents of the facility were given an opportunity to live in the community.

Davis grew up in Urbana, Ohio, but spent most of his life in Philadelphia. He attended Urbana High School between 1971-1974, where he served as president of Student Council, was a member of the National Honor Society and chaired the Prom Committee.

Between 1974-1981, Davis attended Bowling Green University, where he received a Bachelors of Arts degree in Speech Education and a Masters Degree in Higher Education Administration. He was the first Homecoming King at the school.

In 1985, after Davis moved to Philadelphia, he began working at Project SHARE, a self-help and mental-health advocacy project. In 1987, Davis became a founding president of the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers’ Association, a statewide member organization that assists people recovering from a mental illness. 

“We are heartbroken at the passing of our founding president and grandmother Mark Davis,” the association’s website states. “Mark was an active member of our board and committees. And his fiery passion, dedication, and charisma will be a constant gold standard in our ongoing quest for advocacy and equitable treatment for all. We love you Mark.”

From November 1999 to April 2009, Davis worked at the Philadelphia Mental Health Care Corp. as a behavioral health system special needs analyst, according to an agency spokesperson. Davis also worked for a period of time at the city’s AIDS Activities Coordinating Office as a contract worker, according to a city spokesperson.

“He was mostly an advocate, rather than being a provider,” said David Fair, former director of AACO. “His strategy was mostly to beat up on people until they paid attention. He said having a mental-health issue doesn’t have to mean you’re crazy. It can mean that you’re struggling with the trauma of having a deadly disease. Mark taught me that. I did end up getting a grant for a small mental-health program to provide emotional support for people with HIV/AIDS.”

Fair praised Davis’ advocacy skills. “He was a very effective advocate,” Fair continued. “He always cut to the chase. He never talked around an issue. He didn’t come across as angry so much as intense. He was very articulate about the rights of people who had mental illness. That intensity, plus the logic of his argument, convinced a lot of people to do what he was asking them to do.”

Davis was a diminutive person with a cheerful disposition. “He really was a replica of the Pillsbury Dough Boy,” Fair noted. “He was pudgy, happy, round. You couldn’t help but like him when you met him. He was one of those people. He was a very sweet guy, always smiling. He always wanted to cheer people up.”

Davis’ apartment was filled with replicas of the Pillsbury Dough Boy and also of monkeys, for which Davis had an affinity for, friends said.

In 2003, Davis founded the Pink and Blues Network, an LGBTQ mental-health peer-support network. David Neeff, a member of the group, recalled Davis as a kind and welcoming person. “Diversity was a huge part of the group and Mark’s big thing was having everyone included — all diagnoses and all walks of life,” Neeff said. “He’d be sitting in the middle of the group and just admiring all the diversity.”

In 2008, Davis helped form the Keystone Pride Recovery Initiative, which ensures that LGBTQI individuals with mental-health challenges get linked to services.

Yolanda French Lollis, an attorney for Davis, said he was a friend for life. “He was fearless and tenacious in terms of getting in your face and saying the way he thought things should be,” Lollis told PGN. “At the same time he was very loving.”

Ronda Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, fondly recalled her friendship with Davis. “He would send the AIDS Law Project these strident messages — tons of people would be copied — demanding better for people with mental illness, people living with HIV, people in recovery. He would send these strong messages. Then he would call me with strong messages. It seems every time we finished talking, we would dish on Miss America. It was atypical. But we were both pageant fans. We bonded over it. We never thought that giving women an opportunity to voluntarily participate [in a pageant] was objectifying them.”

According to friends, Davis inspired more than 75 mental-health consumer-run groups across the country. In addition, he served as a speaker, consultant, and/or trainer in 43 states for a variety of consumer, family, community, and professional associations. Davis also attended numerous demonstrations in support of people living with mental illness and people living with HIV/AIDS.

In 1985, Davis became a key organizer of Altered States of the Arts, a group celebrating the creativity of people with mental-health challenges. Until recently, Davis performed in drag at conferences and in parades. In 2004, Davis won Best Performance in the Philadelphia LGBT Pride Parade as “Miss Altered States.”

Having attempted suicide in the past, Davis served on a committee of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. In 2009, Davis received a prestigious Voice Award for his advocacy achievements, presented by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Chris Bartlett, a close friend for two decades, said Davis was steadfast in his commitment to causes. “Even in the month that he passed, he was busy working on a campaign to address suicide prevention and addiction recovery in LGBTQ communities,” Bartlett said. “He always felt that these issues were the elephant in the LGBTQ room. And he was committed to keeping mental health of queer people front and center. Many of us are committed to making sure that his efforts will continue.”

After news of his death was reported on social media, an outpouring of love and affection for Davis appeared on his Facebook page. One mourner wrote: “My friend, you have left this earth and made it a lonelier place without your bright smile and quick wit. You lived your life well. You were an example for those uncertain about their lives. You helped them find their way to a fulfilling future where they wouldn’t have to hide their truth. You were free as a bird. Fly high, Mark. Fly high.”

Another friend wrote: “With a flooding mental health system that was warehousing more than healing, you planned and built the ship that made a better life for all of us.

I have more to say but I’m heartbroken. You will be forever missed, my friend.”

Mark was preceded in death by his husband Ted Kirk. His remains will be interred in Ohio beside his mother. Memorial donations may be made to the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers’ Association and/or the Pennsylvania Peer Support Coalition.

An online celebration of Davis’ life is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Oct. 28. For more information, call the William Way LGBT Center at (215) 732 -2220.