Part two of a two-part profile.
Introducing “Lavender Pen” by John Jude Duran a series of interviews with pioneering and iconic LGBT figures across Southern California. In this three part profile, Duran speaks with the Rev. Troy Perry-the founder of the Metropolitan Community Churches in Los Angeles on October 6, 1968. MCC now has 222 congregations in 37 countries. Perry is also one of the co-founders of Christopher Street West-the annual Pride celebration in Southern CA. He was featured in a 2007 documentary film on his life titled “CALL ME TROY”.
DURAN: OK Troy — so we’ve covered the founding of the MCC Churches and the founding of Christopher Street West. I don’t think we could do this interview justice without talking about the plague — without talking about AIDS — and the ministry — and the ministry’s function during I think the worst time in our community history.
PERRY: Absolutely John. My partner, my husband Phillip, has been HIV positive for 34 of our 36 years together — and we found out that he was HIV positive — and we had been madly in love — but AIDS was unbelievable. I have never felt more powerless in some ways yet we did — the ministry we could in other ways. Our church — we’ve always believed in prayer — and so immediately, one of our clergy, Steve Pieters, made a little slogan to remind us all when we started wearing it.
It said God is greater than AIDS — Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches — with our church name on it. We really did believe that. We believe that God Is greater than any disease. And my God you talk about feeling like a child again.
AIDS worked my nerves. Here I am with my partner HIV positive — saying to him when he’s talking about suicide — no you’re not — not in this house.
I said to him, “You’re going to live to be an old man.” (Perry cries)
I can’t say this to everybody, but I can say it to you. I said no suicide. We’re gonna live this one day at a time.
And oh my God in our local church — when our youth group, kids 17 years old coming down with HIV. Coming down with dementia. (Perry weeps)
How do you talk to a 17 year old about death and dying? Having one of those young men — his brother all at once saying “I can never see you again”. I can’t bring your nephews and nieces to see you. They might catch this.
To hear Jerry Falwell every week talk about AIDS. I finally got to debate him on national television in Canada. And um — I think I wiped him up with the floor. (both laugh)
So if you get to see it — Canadian broadcasting — type in Reverend Troy Perry and AIDS — you can see the debate with Jerry Falwell on that. The next thing was the President of the United States could not even read his own AIDS Commission’s report of what was happening in his country — of people dying with this disease. A group of us finally decided we were going to go to the White House and get arrested. A group of about 35 national lesbian and gay men — all flew into Washington DC — and we were arrested out in front of the White House when we tried to block the entrance to the White House. But we had made our point again as we started our fight.
And it wasn’t until Bill Clinton became President — that I was invited as a delegate to the first White House conference on AIDS. I went and talked about AIDS and explained why we needed all the help we needed. And here I am with my own church clergy dying left and right. A lot of male clergy died and as a result of that, Today there are more women clergy than men clergy in the Metropolitan Community Churches. And I always say it was because of AIDS and that plague.
The next thing is we believed in laying hands on people and praying for them. We also lit candles. We said every Sunday — every church in our denomination is to light a candle — the AIDS candle — until this is over with. And they did. And then I get the phone call from one of my clergy — who called and I could tell he was HIV positive — and he was sick and I knew that. And here again — I knew it was very close to his time for him to die. And because he just wasn’t doing well. And he said to me — Reverend Perry?-after we had talked I could tell we were not through talking — if that makes any sense. And I said — um — you need to ask me something? said what is it?
He said Reverend Perry — Iwant to know if the church can bury me? My family doesn’t have the money and I haven’t been working of course — I’ve been so sick. And I told the church at our next general conference — I didn’t have time to call the other elders — I said — I made a decision then. And if you want to rebuke me for it you can but there wasn’t a dry eye in the place of a thousand people at our conference. And I said I told that young man — yes. We’re gonna pay to bury you. And we did that.
We started feeding people. That helped start our feeding process at MCC. Really being serious about the gospel. If people were sick, we went to visit them. If they were hungry, we fed them, If they were naked, we’d clothe them. That’s what we were to do.
DURAN: Let me ask you because I’m starting to put some of these pieces together. So, you have people showing up at your MCC churches — who have been told that they’re not loved by God. That they’re evil sodomites. And now that messaging is being reinforced because of a deadly disease — AIDS. How did you find the moral center to withstand those attacks from both people’s childhood upbringing and the world events that were occurring at the same time?
PERRY: It goes back to the same thing we talked about earlier — and that is — Godis greater than AIDS. Listen to me. You’re not gonna die tomorrow. Hold on. Whatever you do — don’t give up this struggle and this fight today. I’m very thankful that people like my husband Phillip and Steve Pieters are still alive. And I planned his funeral twice with his mom and dad. And I had to tell people over and over again — it was very difficult though — I lived on the telephones because of having to deal with our churches-where just everybody was dying at one time and what do you do? With Jerry Falwell — when we debated each other — he said AIDS was God’s gift to these people — just as herpes was a gift to heterosexuals.
I saidwhat an ugly little God you serve. I said who gives one people an itch and gives the others death? That’s not divine justice at all. And I told our community again — you are not responsible for this. This is not God punishing you. This is a disease. God doesn’t give disease. It’s a condition of human beings. Listen to me. Get yourself together. Hear me. God loves you. And I just had to keep saying it over and over and over again.
I ended up with a family who are up in LA — and they call and ask to come and sit with me. A very sophisticated couple, older couple. And they said our son John attended your church. And he said — he just passed away. They were not crying. Me? I would have been hysterical.
They said — would you mind us having the funeral here? Because we can’t take his body back to Alice, Texas — or everybody in the First Baptist Church, where we’re members, would know! I would go over and beg people not to throw their kids’ stuff out into dumpsters. Hiring people to go in. And not look at their kids’ stuff at all. Just throw it away! Having brother and sisters who would not go visit their kids — and me trying to explain to them — we didn’t know if it was airborne or not. I kept going in and laying hands on people. And I kept praying for people. I didn’t care. Don’t ask me why. That was the part of me that was the clergy part. I just did it the way that I did it.
DURAN: You know there were very few silver linings in AIDS — very few — but one of them is that the LGBT community grew exponentially in terms of number of people who got involved, budgets, new organizations, federal and state funding. Did the MCC churches also grow during AIDS?
PERRY: Absolutely we did. It’s very interesting how people are. Now, they could come to church. We were not going to tell them they couldn’t come to church. I mean I had to meet with our denominational folks. And we had to really have a long conversation because none of us knew — the government kept screaming they didn’t know how (it was spread) — we didn’t know if it was airborne — but yet I said — Look! If anybody should have AIDS — it shoud be Reverend Troy Perry. I’ve had sexual partners.
I’m like the woman at the well that Jesus met. He asked her how many husbands have you had? She says none. And He said — you speak the truth — you’ve had five! (both laugh) But they weren’t your husbands! And I told the church so don’t go down that road with this. This is not caused by people who have slept with you. It’s a disease. Once we find out how it’s transmitted — we can act so differently.
And you’re right John — the organizations! The things that happened! It was incredible. I mean once we got to pulling as a community around AIDS. I will be thankful all of my life — for the women in my church who adopted someone who was sick in their congregation. Who made sure they had food. Made sure they would deal with other men and say “you got to take them down to the doctor.” We need some help with this. We were like every other organization. What do we do best?
I will always remember that there’s so much to do. And we did. We grew in the middle of all that. It’s so bizarre. But a lot of people appreciated that we were there. And the message that we gave. And I was thankful that did not have to do everything.
I mean, my God, once Project Angel Food started feeding people, and once the gay center started getting federal monies to do the things that they did. I mean — I look back on all of that and as we say — if there’s a silver lining that came out of all that — that was it.
And then finally, finally — we started getting some help from the government.
DURAN: I think what’s become apparent to me-the leadership that rose up in the 60’s, the 70’s. the 80’s and the 90’s — we always had something to press up against. Whether it was coming out. Or getting the American Psychological Association to reclassify us or fighting for gays in the military or HIV and AIDS — or just some basic recognition. And then we look at our young LGBTQ community today —who I think have a very different set of challenges than we did. It’s not so much”coming out”. They’re out! AIDS has become largely manageable.
PERRY: The gays are out in Alice Texas now!
DURAN: That’s right! And to a lot of them. This may seem like history. Something that happened a long time ago. And I watch our young people now with social media. Hungry for “likes” or “hits” or Tik Tok and lnstagram — and it all seems to be very short, fleeting and I need immediate recognition for who I am — rather than putting in the hard labor of years of effort. And I worry about our community’s future. I’m curious. About the current generation and what they can learn from those of us who came before them?
PERRY: I don’t know who said it but it’s true — if you don’t learn your history — you’re bound to repeat it. And the one thing I never want is young people to repeat what we had to go through. I say over and over again to young people — whatever you do — the amazing thing today with our now generation is — they want what they want right now! And not tomorrow!
I was one of those people — and there were others like me — who made up our minds. We’re in this for the duration. That we’re not shooting stars. We’re not going to quit the fight because it gets difficult. And with the young generation today — because they want instant gratification — which is OK “go ahead” — but sometimes you gotta fight for itl
And today when I look at the next generation — I’m amazed at the tools they have to work with. Gay and straight alliances — my God — I was at our parade here. I’m up on a float and I look over to the side. And I see about a thousand kids and I couldn’t figure out who they were. I’m staying there and once they started marching out in front of us — and I said to somebody — does anybody know who that is? And they said it’s the straight and gay alliance. I could not! I broke down crying. There were so many students in that group! The next year I look — and here is the high school band — from the high school over in West Hollywood — Fairfax High! Bam! All these teenagers marching down Santa Monica Blvd and Christopher Street West today!
I don’t know what we would have done my God — if we had the internet back when we started our movement — right? It’s very interesting. In 50 years — I agree with the writers who say we got here quick! And we did! With marriage — kids today can marry! They can have everything a heterosexual can — except a job. And if I could get that through their heads — that still in 28 states — there are laws that still keep from working for a living.
Don’t get me wrong. Gays lesbians bi transgender queer! Everybody is out of the closet in those states. But I read about discrimination every day as it continues to go on. And there are young people who are being discriminated against. They do know what the fight is about. They’ve learned how to get get it together. Whether it’s on the internet or a chat room. It’s going to make a difference for us. It can’t be all fun and games. It can’t be … :”oh I’m so thankful we’re on television now”. Yeah. We are. I am thankful for that.
However, there’s still the fight to go on.
DURAN: Yeah, I kind of laugh when I think about how we used to organize back in the 70s and 80s. We would stuff envelopes or create phone trees. And the young kids today. They’ll just send out a tweet to their 50 000 followers in 2 seconds right?
PERRY: That’s really the truth. I can’t believe it. I mean once in a while I follow somebody gay on Tik Tok. And I’m amazed. On my Facebook page I only have about 10,000 followers. And I think that’s a lot! I mean oh my God! But they really do. And with all the tools that are there. I believe we really can win this fight. I really believe with all my heart.
DURAN: You know — from the very beginning of gay liberation — it seemed like there was always a two schools of thought. One about sort of radical identity like the Radical Faeries. And then others said that you and Morris (Kight) and others were the assimilationists. And you actually said that earlier in this interview. So here we are. We are pretty much assimilated into American culture. And yet — is there still something unique about being LGBT that needs to be preserved and celebrated — that’s maybe beyond assimilation?
PERRY: Yes. I’m very funny. I used to say years ago that I believe everybody ought to get in a gay bar. I also believe that every gay person should get into a straight bar. And I look and I think today — you know that I do miss — I can’t get Philip to go to the bar with me anymore! It’s so funny. But it was wonderful because it was community. And being with a group of people they shared some of the things you liked. I went to the leather bars. I am a Leatherman. I don’t back away from that. That’s a part of me — Troy Perry! But today it’s different.
There are groups! And it’s more based on age than anything else. There are old people who get together. There are people who get together on their iPads. There’s young people who get together and they’re not interested because they don’t realize they’re going to be old one day. And it’s just amazing to me as I watch what happens. That I do miss. Going on the bike runs up to the High Sierras with 500 gay men. I miss being able to talk about things that men talk about. We certainly did then. And it’s getting harder. I always want everybody in the room. But it’s very interesting. I remember in MCC — when we were trying to talk about racism — that we talked about It. We were fine until it was all white people in the room. And I have to admit there were white people in the room. Well they’re just as prejudiced as we are and learning the difference between being prejudiced and having white privilege. That was part of our thing that we did in all of our courses on racism. Today I hope that all of us — will have friends from every racial group — every gender group — everything.
But I do miss some things. And it wasn’t the segregation but we in the middle of the feminist struggle — women in MCC wanted to meet alone. There were men who didn’t like that — oh my God — the women are out there talking — and we can’t hear what’s going on! And always say they needed time to talk about things too. And sometimes it’s things like that that I wish were still here even as an assimilationist..
I live-we live in a condominium. Our home is paid for-thank God. And I have good neighbors. I have good lesbian neighbors. Good gay neighbors. I have good black neighbors. I have good Hispanic neighbors. I have good Jewish neighbors. I have good neighbors who are women. Good neighbors who are men. And I’m very thankful for that. Living in Silver Lake near the top of the hill and overlooking Los Angeles. And having one of the most beautiful views in the world — I’m thankful for that, but this plague we’re in now has taught me for two years — I haven’t hardly been around people. And that can get very lonely sometimes. When you’re two years locked away — because you don’t want the (COVID) disease — and so here we are but in the middle of this — I think of wonderful things that happened.
I knew that a young man called a press conference-and announced that his father the Bishop of the Methodist church in Texas had died of AIDS because he went to pray for them and laid hands on them. I don’t believe in outing people — but I held my own press conference as soon as I found out he did it. And said that is a liel I said the bishop was a gay man. I said I don’t out people. But I said when somebody tells a lie — about my community-and implies that praying for the sick can kill you! I have to speak up and say something.
So, I am very thankful for my community. I’m very thankful for young people. But it is very difficult-still the government and companies — they pay for everything today. They pay for a lot of the LGBTQ organizations. Nothing wrong with that. But I’m not sure our community would know how to ask for money today — if all of that was taken away from us. I just don’t know and the only way how to do it — is by doing it.
And so I say to them — whatever you do — learn our history! Be thankful for those people who predated you! Because they love you! And they want to see you succeed just like they did.
DURAN: Troy. The way I end every one of these interviews is the same. If you had the ability to write the epitaph on your tombstone — what would It say?
PERRY: It would say: “He was fearless ….. and faithful”
DURAN: That’s beautiful. It’s been a lovely 2 hours. Thank you!
PERRY: Listen John. I love you.