Rev. Troy Perry (left), USC professor Christopher Freeman and Jeanne Cordóva
Two icons of the Los Angeles LGBT movement gave their personal accounts of the early gay rights struggle at a panel discussion held at the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries. Writer and activist Jeanne Cordóva became president of the L.A. chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis 43 years ago, and from there played a key role in building a national lesbian rights movement. Rev. Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church in 1968 and performed the first same-sex wedding in the United States in 1970. Also in 1970, Rev. Perry co-founded the organization Christopher Street West, which planned the first-ever Pride Parade.
Given that ONE Archives is the largest LGBT history archive in the world, it was fitting that the panel discussion itself resembled an oral history project. Christopher Freeman, a USC professor in gender and sexuality studies (with an emphasis on Los Angeles), and a ONE Archives board member, asked Cordova and Perry about their formative periods in the movement as well as the major challenges in the time just preceding gay liberation.
Rev. Perry talked about his experience in pre-Stonewall era gay clubs in Southern California, where police raids and arrests were common. At the Red Raven club in Hollywood, Perry recalled with a sense of humor, a friend advised him not to talk with strangers. Perry said, “I thought, my God, how do you meet anyone?” At another bar, the Canyon Club, patrons had to be buzzed through three doors just to get in. Perry also told the story of friends who were arrested during a raid at The Patch, a club in Wilmington. Police snapped a picture of Perry and others at the club and published it in the front page of a local newspaper. The Patch was also the location of rebellion against another police raid in 1968, 10 months before the more famous Stonewall riots in New York.
It was out of these experiences in the late 1960s, Perry said, that his involvement in the still nascent gay movement began to emerge. Telling the story of the day his life turned around, Perry said he laid in a hospital bed with his wrists bandaged after an unsuccessful suicide attempt over a troubled relationship. He said an African-American nurse came into the room to confront him when he was crying uncontrollably, and said, “I don’t know why you done this, but this is crazy.” The nurse revealed to Perry that she had once tried to commit suicide herself and showed the scars on her own arms. She said, “Isn’t there someone you can talk to? Can’t you just look up?”
Perry, who was raised in a southern Pentecostal church, said this pushed “every religious button in me from my childhood, and I prayed for the first time in years.” Perry continued to pray when he got home from the hospital, but to a God he still believed condemned homosexuality. “Then God spoke to me and said, ‘Troy, don’t tell me what I can and can’t do. I love you. I don’t have stepsons and stepdaughters.’ I knew at that moment I could be a homosexual.” The rest is history. Starting with a prayer group of 12 people in his living room in Huntington Park, the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) grew over the next 46 years to over 222 member congregations in 37 countries. Perry began performing same-sex unions in 1970 and MCC ordained women starting in 1972.