REVEREND TROY PERRY
THE METROPOLITAN COMMUNITY CHURCH
Reverend Troy Perry deserves and is owed credit for establishing inclusive Christianity dedicated to LGBTQ rights. In October 1968, he founded the Metropolitan Community Church. The “MCC,” without question, is the most important LGBTQ church both historically and presently. Its impact was immediate. After six weeks, the church moved out of Reverend Troy Perry’s living room into a theater that housed 600 people, and, by 1971, the MCC bought its own church with room for over 1,000 people. Now, the MCC has over 400,000 members and 222 member congregations in 37 countries in every continent but Antarctica.
Reverend Troy Perry was raised in Florida and grew up a Southern Baptist. He experienced the radicalization of Christian fundamentalists in his young life. When he was 13 years old, he was pushed into a snake-handling, Christian religion during an altar call. In 2019, when he reflected on the experience, he said, “I thought, if I've got to pick up a snake to go to Heaven, I'm going to bust Hell wide open because I am not going to handle snakes.” While he was ordained a minister at 15 years old, he knew once he left his home that he was onto something greater, something that would forever change Christianity.
Reverend Troy Perry was also an early celebrator of lesbian and gay marriages. The first one he officiated was in 1969. In 1970, he filed a lawsuit seeking legal validity for his illegal marriages. That wasn’t the only lawsuit. The last was in 2003 when he married his longtime partner, Phillip, in Canada and returned to Los Angeles. He sued the state of California and won. The fruits of civil rights are inseparable from its trunk and roots.
While he has always been called to a life of spiritual service, growing up in North Florida in the '40s and '50s wasn't easy for Reverend Troy Perry. Faith wasn't enough. His father was described as the biggest bootlegger in North Florida and died fleeing the police when Reverend Troy Perry was 11 years old. After that, his mother remarried an abusive alcoholic.
Reverend Perry: The man that she married just did not like me. My name was Troy Jr. My father was Troy. He did some very bizarre and horrible things, and finally, I ran away from home.
During his formative years, Reverend Troy Perry experienced the radicalization of his Christian Church. After running away and staying with his family in North Florida, his Aunt Lizzie Smith had a premonition that he would enter a spiritual life.
Reverend Perry: We went to her rural church. During what we call in the Pentecostal Church the altar call, I went forward like all of us did to pray, and she came over and laid hands on me and said, "I just received a revelation from the Lord." She said, "God is going to use you mightily, but not in the church you think."
Reverend Troy Perry's Aunt might have been right about her nephew's calling, but he wasn't about to shed his skin for her cause.
Reverend Perry: My Aunt Lizzie Smith, a good, Southern woman, helped found snake-handling churches in America. I thought, "Well, if I've got to pick up a snake to go to heaven, I'm going to bust hell wide open."
Reverend Troy Perry could not deny his calling, and at 15 years old, he was ordained a Baptist minister.
Reverend Perry: I felt a call to ministry at a very young age. I felt there were all kinds of young people like me. I didn't realize until later in my life that I was very unusual, even for that time.
As different as he was from other boys his age, Reverend Troy Perry was also different in another way. His first sexual experience was when he was nine years old with another boy his age.
Reverend Perry: I had no role models. I thought I was the only person in the world that had the feelings that I did.
At age 18, unable to deny his feelings towards men any longer and to seek a life of honesty, he confessed his homosexual tendencies to the pastor at his church. The pastor had a solution.
Reverend Perry: I said to him, "I think I have a problem." I didn't use the word homosexual. I knew what it meant, but I kept saying to myself, "You're not a homosexual, no matter what you feel." For about an hour, I talked around the mulberry bush trying to make sure that my pastor understood that I had an attraction to men. Finally, his eyes lit up, and he said, "Oh my God. I know what you're trying to tell me, and all you need to do is marry a good woman, and that'll take care of that problem." Well, I married his daughter.
Reverend Troy Perry was married for five years and had two sons, but he could never ignore the truth inside him, the voice telling him, "This is not me." In his early 20s, a job opportunity brought him and his family to Los Angeles. He joined a small church as a pastor, and after just a short time in the City of Angels, his worlds began to open. One day while on a walk, Reverend Troy Perry dipped into a curious bookstore. What he found would help him discover the words he had always searched for.
Reverend Perry: I remember looking around, and, all at once, for the first time in my life, I saw a physique magazine. Those were the good old days when they still wore bathing suits—it was men. My God, I knew, I looked, and I was just almost embarrassed. I thought, "Oh my God, Troy, there is something different about you? Why are you so attracted to these photographs in this magazine?" I got some nerve, and I went to the woman behind the counter, who I know today was probably a lesbian, and said, "Do you have any books on homosexuality?" She looked me up and down, and she said, "Well, I have a few." I said, "Give me a copy of everything you've got." I wrote out a check for $18 and something cents. That was a lot of money back then.
I took them back home, and two things in that bag really helped me: the magazine One, not the One physique magazine—but that I had her put that in there too. There was One magazine by a homophile group. It let me know that I wasn't the only homosexual in the world. I was just shocked because it looked like there were communities of people like me. The other book was called The Homosexual in America by Donald Webster Cory. When I read that book, it just described me to a T, and I knew without another thing that I was a homosexual.
Our young Reverend read and re-read his new collection of literature. He hid them under his bed, but their influence continued to be undeniable. Yet again, unable to keep his true self hidden and looking for answers, Reverend Troy Perry came out to his church, his leadership. The Bishop quickly removed him. The aftermath left him with no choice but to tell his wife. It was no surprise to her because she had found a secret stash of homo reads months before under his bed.
Reverend Troy Perry: She said, "I read the book, and it said that some homosexuals are married heterosexually, and maybe we could stay together," and I said, "No. All I have is a label. I don't know what I am really." I said, "Until I find that out, that's the way it's going to be." I said, "I want to know what you want to do." She said, "Well, if we're not going to stay together. I want to go back to my mom and dad." I said, "All right." I went to the airport and put them on the plane. I had no idea I would not see my children, or one of them at least, for another 17 years. There's a price to be paid sometimes for coming out of the closet, but I wouldn't have done anything any differently than I did.
Although he deeply mourned the loss of his family. Reverend Troy Perry knew he had made the right choice. His true self had been fighting to get out for so long, bravely proclaiming himself to be rejected every time. Now he had room to breathe freely. He remembers the joy he felt going to a restaurant in Hollywood called Piccolos with his gay friend.
Reverend Troy Perry: There were other gay men there, I could tell, and someone was there who was—I was so dumb. He was actually looking at me, but since I was with another gay man, he just said, "Hi, my name is Billy," and I brightened right up. I thought, oh, this is wonderful. I'm meeting somebody. We started talking, and then another person came over, and it was Willie Smith. Willie became my roommate. We were not sexual partners ever, but we were the best friends in the world.
Like many other restaurants and bars around Los Angeles at the time, this restaurant wasn't what you'd think of when you think of today's gay bars. Pre-Stonewall gay life was a matter of survival. Many states, including where Reverend Troy Perry grew up, enforced anti-sodomy laws. Being gay in public was forbidden. Gay men and women congregating at bars and restaurants were constantly under threat of violence and arrest. Undercover cops spotting a pat on the butt or same-sex kiss would quickly and violently shut the place down. It was around this time when Reverend Troy Perry met his first love. Like many first loves, it was brief, intense, and when it was over, the Reverend found an adversary worse than any he had ever faced before, heartbreak.
Reverend Troy Perry: My partner walked out. I took a razor blade, climbed into a bathtub, and cut both of my wrists. I said, "God, this just isn't fair. You can't love me, the church says. They say that I'm an abomination. The person that I was in love with has walked out of my life.” I had the patty poos, and I said, "I just don't want to live anymore." Willie Smith came home and knocked on the bathroom door, and when I didn't answer—he knew I had been very depressed over the breakup—he broke down the door.
Recovering in the hospital and drowning in his misery, Reverend Troy Perry returned to prayer.
Reverend Troy Perry: I felt what we call in the Pentecostal Church, the joy of my salvation. It was like I could feel God there with me. I said, "Wait a minute, this can't be you, God. You can't love me. My church has told me you can't because I'm still a practicing homosexual. That hasn't changed.” With that, I tell people, 50 years later, that God spoke to me in a still, small voice in the mind's ear and said to me, "Troy, don't tell me what I can and can't do. I love you. I don't have stepsons and stepdaughters." With that, I knew I could be a Christian and a homosexual. It took me a few months before it finally dawned on me: If God loves me, then God has to love other gay people too. That was just a revelation to me.
Coming to a new powerful place of self-love and reconnecting with a spiritual calling, Reverend Troy Perry felt a new commitment to his gay brothers and sisters. One night at a gay bar called The Patch, a police raid cemented in him what he needed to do.
Reverend Troy Perry: Immediately, Lee Glaze, the bar owner, jumped up on his bar and said, "They arrested two of our friends." We got in cars, and went to the police station. Lee was very effeminate, and he walked up to that counter, and I'm telling you, he said to the police officer, "We're here to get our sisters out of jail." The cop said, "What are your sisters' names?" He said, "Bill Hastings and Tony Valdez."
Gay anger cannot be denied. The police eventually caved, released his friends, and dropped the charges. His first of what would become a lifetime of protesting injustice.
The love that he had felt in the hospital began to grow outward rapidly.
Reverend Troy Perry: When I took Tony back to my house, he broke down just crying. He said, "I've never been treated that way in my life." I said, "Look." I said, "Tony, I want to tell you something. Even if you think people didn't care, God does." Tony laughed in my face, crying through his tears, and said, "Troy, I went to my priest when I was 15 years old, told him about my feelings, and he ordered me out of Catholic Sunday school." He said, "I know, Troy, that God doesn't care about me. Will you take me home?"
I drove him home, came back to my house, and when I did, I knelt and prayed. I said, "All right God, I think I found my niche in ministry again. I can't find any place to go to church," and I said, "If you want me to start a church that has a special outreach into the gay community, but open to everybody, you just let me know when." With that, that still small voice in the mind's ear said to me, "Now."
In 1968, Reverend Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church at his house in Huntington Park in Los Angeles. When Reverend Troy Perry told his roommate about the idea of establishing a radical Christian religion for downtrodden LGBTQ people, his response was again rejection.
Reverend Troy Perry: I said, "Willie, I'm starting a church." He said, "Oh my God." He said, "Troy, what do you mean a church? You're the only gay person I've ever met who wanted to talk about religion."
The MCC's first service was on October 6th, 1968.
Reverend Troy Perry: It was wonderful. There was one Jew with his Gentile lover. There was one person of color. There was one heterosexual couple. It was just amazing. I preached on the Book of Job, the story of Job where Job said, "Though God slay me, yet I'll trust God." Those were my feelings. God said he loved me, so God has to love all of you too. Then when we finished, we stood for Communion. Only three people came forward, but you could cut the emotions with a knife. Everybody in the room was crying. The next Sunday, as I tell people, we had 14 in attendance. I said, "Oh, thank you, Jesus." Next Sunday, we had 18, and I said, "Oh blessed to be the lamb forever." Next, we had a nun, and I almost died right there. God seemed to speak to my heart and say, "Troy, quit counting the crowd. Don't worry about that." Within a year and a half, we were running over 1,000 congregants here in Los Angeles. Heavenly Father!
Bringing Christianity to LGBTQ people who had long felt judged and rejected by more fundamentalist beliefs was no easy task. In 1946, the translation team for the Revised Standard Version Bible mistranslated and haphazardly inserted the word homosexual. Reverend Troy Perry remembers the new addition entering his childhood church. To Reverend Troy Perry, the conflict between homosexuality and Christianity was not inherit to Christianity itself, but rather it was created by the prevailing power structures.
Reverend Troy Perry: The followers of Jesus Christ have not always done good things, but it is Jesus himself who I follow. It's very interesting. I know that the word Christian comes from the name Christ. As a gay person and a Christian, I find that he never did any of the horrible things done in his name.
Another way that Reverend Troy Perry challenged the conventional relationships between LGBTQ people and Christianity was through his marriage ceremonies. He celebrated his first one in 1968. Time magazine described his marriages as the first public same-sex unions in the United States. He had one condition though; couples had to be together for six months before their marriage. His celebrations couldn't be an immediate sensation, they needed to endure. As if the Time magazine visibility wasn't enough, he sued the state of California to recognize their validity.
Reverend Troy Perry: In those days, I had attorneys who attended my church. I said, "Do your homework, tell me how we can do this." They found a law that had never been taken off the books. It was written in the eighteen hundreds right after California became a Republic. It said that if there was a common-law couple, that a priest or clergyman could marry them, and then the state would have to give them a license, but you would have to marry them first. I married two women. We took it to a judge in LA who laughed us out of court. I thought, now, buddy, I hope you live to see this. I'm never going to give up on this.
It might have been his first lawsuit, but it sure wasn't his last. In 2003, when Toronto legalized gay marriage, Reverend Troy Perry went there and married his long-time partner, Philip.
Reverend Troy Perry: By the time we got there, the press was waiting, and they all said, "But when you go home, you won't be married." I said, to quote a very famous American cowboy, “They’ll take this wedding band off my cold, dead hand.”
Upon their return to California, he sued the State of California in the superior court for recognition of his marriage and won. The State then appealed and the Court of Appeals invalidated his marriage. Reverend Troy Perry was never going to give up. He continued his fight and took his case to the Supreme Court of California. He won. His marriage was recognized for three months until Proposition 8 was passed. Proposition 8 took away the right for same-sex marriage. His marriage was again deemed legal when the United States Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2008.
Reverend Troy Perry: I've taken more cases to court than most. I told people that I know what the courts are there for. They’re there to be used, if you have to, that's the last thing I want to do, but if they mess with us, we have to mess with them.
Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of his dedication to his community was on June 20th, 1971, when members of the MCC marched 109 miles from Oakland to Sacramento to support Proposition AB437. AB437 proposed the repeal of sex crime laws and sodomy statutes used to harass and discriminate against the LGBTQ community.
Reverend Troy Perry: We had our going away demonstration that we held in San Francisco. A young man who was overdosing jumped up on the stage and broke a beer bottle and tried to stab me with it. There were cops, which I had no idea about. They were in plain clothes. They jumped up on the stage and took the man down. We marched across the state. The third day we were out, somebody shot up the entire camp.
August: You said you were shot at?
Reverend Troy Perry: That's correct.
August: What happened? No one got hurt, right?
Reverend Troy Perry: Nobody got hurt.
Reverend Troy Perry fasted for three days on his trek across California. Similar to the manna that God provided the Israelites when he led them through the Red Sea on dry ground and into the wilderness of sin, the Lord provided for Reverend Troy Perry and his marchers as they headed to Sacramento.
Reverend Troy Perry: When we arrive in Sacramento, the Sacramento Church came out to feed all of the demonstrators. Two of the women were from our church, Madeline Davis and Frieda Smith. The next day of the demonstration, I asked the pastor, Nick Coleman, and Frieda Smith to speak. My God. Frieda got up and was so incredible. I couldn't believe her. All at once, something happened. It was a miracle. A circular rainbow shined over the capital. Willie Brown, the African American legislature, looked up and said, "My God, I've heard of gay power, but this is ridiculous."
Whenever I start interviewing these warriors who selflessly changed the world, I forget that they're human. They seem to float above the rest of us, but then after hours of interviews and knowing the intimate details of their lives, I realize that they walk on the same dirt paths that we all do. Sometimes they stumble, sometimes they fall, but they always get up and continue to match.
In my first interview with Reverend Troy Perry, I asked him if he ever cries. He always seems so bright and carefree. He took a deep breath and brought up June 24th, 1973. The day when 125 members of his New Orleans congregation were victims of a homophobic arson. After mass, the congregation gathered at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar. It was one of the deadliest attacks on the gay community prior to the 2016 Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting. 27 people died, and 18 were injured. The police made matters worse with their insensitivity.
Reverend Troy Perry: I had issues with the police right off the bat for what they said and what they did—they left our pastor's body in a window. They didn't have to, they could have removed that body, but it was like the police saying to the community, "This could be you."
Gay rights weren't gifted overnight. As the MCC's visibility increased, it became a target for arson. In 1972, fires destroyed the San Francisco MCC. In 1973, the MCC's headquarters at South Union Avenue in West 22nd Street was destroyed by two separate instances of arson.
Reverend Troy Perry: When I saw it, I couldn't believe it. I just broke down crying, and Willie Smith put his arms around my shoulder and said, "Troy, everybody's watching you. They're hurt, they are discouraged, and you got to get them back." Immediately, I started thinking, "My God, where are we going to hold church?" I decided, well, we're going to hold it right here in the street, next to the church building. Sunday morning—I didn't know if anybody would come to church. I really didn't, but people started gathering. We had over 1,000 people come.
Like a Phoenix, Reverend Troy Perry rose from the ashes. He proudly proclaimed his privilege when he told me, "I have had the honor of being arrested in front of the White House, and I've been invited to the White House by three presidents."
Reverend Troy Perry: There are times when you have to fight for what is right, and you have to fight in their face. I say that over and over again. We can't back away from being who we are.
From a historical standpoint, the evolution of the MCC is miraculous. Its rapid expansion and consistent impact are unmatched by most modern religions. The church now has over 400,000 members and almost 300 churches in 22 countries around the world.
Reverend Troy Perry: If you would have told me years ago that MCC would have ended up being one of the largest groups touching the lives of gays and lesbians worldwide, I would have called you a liar; but, we did because we just kept doing the work we felt like we had to do. In the middle of all that death, dying, and debating, people were saying, "God hates the homosexual."
While the times have changed, and, for many of us are better, they are not perfect. Several people coming out of, or going into Christianity, understand that there are intrinsic limitations. The reflection forever remains. How do we take the crucial parts out of our organized religion when our organized religion validates our persecution?
Reverend Troy Perry: Spirituality is so important to all of us, not religion always, but spirituality is. It is spirituality that I teach in Metropolitan Community Church.
The above interview was previously featured in the QueerCore Podcast. Text and research by August Bernadicou and Chris Coats.