Meet the godfather of gay pride, Rev. Troy Perry
June 7, 2017
If LA is the golden home of America’s queer rights movement, Rev. Troy Perry is its gay godfather. With this year’s LA Pride becoming the Resist March (originating at Hollywood & Highland this Sunday, June 11, 2017), we met with the co-founder of the world’s first gay pride parade, which took place in Hollywood on June 28, 1970, to hear how it all began.
What inspired you to start a parade?
Morris Kight called me—he was very leftist and would always call me “Brother Troy”— and said ‘can Bob [Rev. Humphries] and I come over and see you?’ He handed me a letter from New York, which is in the ONE Archives. It said that they were going to do something to honor the show of strength made on Christopher Street at the Stonewall Riot, and would we do our own march here in Los Angeles. I said “Morris, this is Hollywood. Let’s do something a little different, let’s hold a parade.” Saying it and doing it turned out to be something different.
Were the authorities cooperative?
It got so hostile so quick. They asked “who do I represent” and I said “the homosexual community” and then they tried to make fun of us. I always got right back in their face, I’m not going to let you turn me into anything other than what I know: Rev. Troy Perry. And by that time I had a non-profit organization, the Metropolitan Community Church.
Chief Davis opposed the parade altogether. They asked us to wait just a minute while they deliberated but they had already made up their minds. The Police Commission voted 4 to 1 to place conditions on the parade permit. And they were 1) you’d have to put up a bond for a million dollars to pay out the businesses when people throw rocks at ya’ll 2) you have to put up a cash bond of $500,000, and 3) you’ve got to have at least 5000 people marching.
What about legal support?
When we returned with a wonderful attorney that the ACLU assigned to us, Herb Selwyn, they weren’t laughing. He presented our side in court in front of a judge here in LA. The District Attorney presented the City’s side. I got a fair-minded Judge who banged on his gavel and ordered the City of LA to “protect these people even if you need to call out the National Guard.” That’s what the courts are for, I’m not afraid to use the courts. Even if they rule against me I’ve had my day in court. Being an American citizen I know what my rights are and my fight has always been just treat me like every other American. I don’t ask for any more but I’ll be damned if I ever settle for any less.
Was Hollywood popular with the gay community back then?
On one end of Hollywood Boulevard was Pagola’s restaurant. It was a meeting place for gay men. We would walk from the Hollywood Freeway almost down to Hollywood and Vine to the next gay restaurant, the Gold Cup [a coffee shop on the corner of Wilcox & Hollywood Blvd]. In between of course could be other gay men, sex workers or the hustlers who would hang around in front of those areas. The bar at that time was called the Red Raven. It scared me to death. I didn’t know what cruising was, that’s how dumb I was. I come from a blue-collar family. It was dark inside, with red lights and signs that said “don’t talk to strangers”. I wondered how I would ever meet anyone if I didn’t talk to them? It was the only time I went there because it frightened me.
What sparked your activism?
On August 17, 1968, I was down in Wilmington at The Patch. It was the first gay dance bar. I took a date of mine Tony Valdez. We went in and we were having the best time. All at once my date goes over to the bar area and Bill, an older gay man, reached over as Tony was bringing my beer back and slapped him on the butt. They were arrested for lewd and lascivious conduct by the three vice officers who were not wearing uniforms in the bar.
So they had undercover spies hiding out?
The Patch’s owner, Lee Glaze, known as the “Blond Darling”, started shouting “Is there a florist here I want to buy every flower you’ve got.” We walked into LAPD’s Harbor Station, and when Lee approached the desk officer on duty, he announced, “We’re here to get our sisters out!” “What are your sisters’ names?” asked the officer. “Tony Valdez and Bill Hasting” said Lee. It scared this cop to death! Lee showed me you don’t have to be afraid of the police. Once that happened, it encouraged me to become a gay activist.
And was this the catalyst for forming MCC?
I founded the Metropolitan Community Church because of Tony’s arrest. I always tell people God said to me “Troy, I love you and I don’t have step sons and daughters.” And with that I knew I could be gay and Christian. For me the military was finishing school. Once the military tells you over and over again that you could die you get to that point of “well, if death is the 800-pound gorilla in the room” and so it was with MCC at first. Since then, 21 of our churches have been burned down and 8 of our pastors have been murdered in the U.S. since 1968. Our organization has paid its price. We’re a deeply spiritual people. You can’t go through the fire and come out the other side not caring. We believe in Christian salvation. We believe in community. And we believe in Christian social action, meaning we will picket when we need to picket. Even if they kill us we believe in life eternal.
How did that experience inform your activism?
My first demonstration was on March 9, 1969 down at the Dover Hotel on Skid Row. That didn’t frighten me. I went in my full regalia to lay flowers for Howard Efland who had been beaten to death by police. I wasn’t afraid of a fistfight. If push came to shove I could handle myself. I’m a Southerner and seeing what Doctor King was doing with African Americans, he became my mentor. My mother taught me to be good to people. Tony Valdez, who was arrested at the Patch, was a Mexican American. The first [same-sex] couple I married at MCC was a Hispanic couple in December 1968. I wasn’t going to perform marriages for somebody you met last night. But if you were serious, come see me. One of them was dressed in a little female wedding outfit. It didn’t matter. I married them in my home. It was just the three of us. They didn’t even bring witnesses.
What lessons did you learn from growing up among Pentecostals?
By the time of the parade I’m not afraid. I used my real name on the first ad in the Advocate for the MCC. They taught me that if you wanted to start a church you needed three things: you’ve got to tell people who you are, tell them what you believe, tell them where you are. I went back to the Patch and put up a sign. Lee introduced me to the two owners of the Advocate, the first gay newspaper, who were at the bar that night. They gave me the first ad if I would buy two more. And it just blossomed.
The church then moved to the Encore Theater in Hollywood—how did that happen?
My roommate, Willie Smith, was the projectionist. Willie persuaded Louie Federici, the owner, to let the church use it before the Sunday matinees. He took a lot of shit for renting to me. He was a closeted gay man but was Catholic and went to Mass. The Religion Editor for the LA Times came down to the Encore Theater. He later told me that he had no idea he was watching the birth of a global organization.
There’s some confusion about whether it was New York or LA that had the first parade. Can you clarify?
I sued. I won. We had a parade with floats and music and marchers. On the same day that we had our parade, New York did something too. Nothing wrong with that. And they had a wonderful rally, but with Morris and Bob, we had the first parade here and they dedicated a plaque to it on Hollywood Boulevard.
What are your views on LA Pride becoming Resist?
Brian Pendleton called me and said we need to reset what we’re doing. We feel like we need to do something different this time. We can go back next year but our community needs to hear again that we are going to resist, like the early demonstrations here in LA. Black lives do matter, Hispanic lives matter, union groups, women, trans lives matter.
Will you be attending?
My partner Philip and I absolutely will. I will speak at the start of the march with the Mayor of LA. This is my home. When I moved here I adopted Los Angeles and I love my city.
The Resist March starts at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue on Sunday June 11, stepping off towards West Hollywood by 10:00 a.m.
Cover photo by Jonathan David, used by permission.
Los Angeles is both muse and home for British-born culture journalist Richard Bence. His mission is to chronicle and unearth the hidden stories of Hollywood with a special focus on its heritage. He has a passion for preservation, loves all things midcentury and enjoys getting close to nature on a canyon hike or lapping up the architectural riches of the city he calls home. He contributes to Monocle, Monocle 24 and United’s Rhapsody magazine. richard-bence.com