Rev. Troy Perry was anxious. What if LAPD Police Chief Ed Davis was right and a mob of hardhats was waiting to descend on parade-goers just as they turned the corner from McCadden Place onto Hollywood Boulevard? Experience told him police would not protect the gays and may even arrest them for malicious interference with the downward-progress of a hardhat’s valuable baseball bat.
That’s just the way it was in Los Angeles on June 28, 1970. But unlike New York, which was commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the new movement for gay liberation with a protest march, Perry and his Christopher Street West co-founders Morris Kight and Rev. Bob Humphries, decided to throw a celebratory parade. There should be joy in liberation, relief from the constant fuel of rage.
But it hadn’t been easy. Perry had appeared before the Los Angeles Police Commission to secure a parade permit and Davis, who publicly called gays “faeries,” told him: “As far as I’m concerned, granting a permit to a group of homosexuals to parade down Hollywood Boulevard would be the same as giving a permit to a group of thieves and robbers.”
The Police Commission granted the permit—if CSW paid a $1.5 million bond. American Civil Liberties Union attorney Herbert E. Selwyn stepped up, forcing the commission to drop the excessive fee. Selwyn also won a court order to have the $1,500 police protection fee dropped, with the California Superior Court judge declaring that homosexuals were citizens, too.
At 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1970, an estimated 1,165 people showed up on McCadden Place, ready to come out and party down Hollywood Boulevard. One Gay Liberation Front float featured a gay man “nailed” to a black and white cross with a sign reading: “In Memory of Those Killed by the Pigs.” Street performers dressed as fairies with wings pretended they were being chased by police brandishing nightsticks.
The political theater masked the deep anxiety and courage it took to participate in the parade; for some, it was also brave just to stand on the curb and applaud. No one knew if violence would erupt—whether from hardhats or the police or an ordinary citizen outraged at homosexuals proudly on parade.
Anti-gay violence had already seared Troy Perry’s soul. On Oct. 28, 1968, the Tallahassee, Fla., native started his own church with 12 gay worshippers in his Huntington Park living room. It was an act of spiritual resistance against the Pentecostal church that defrocked him because of his homosexuality, a pain deepened by the end of a romance. Then, an epiphany: Rev. Troy Perry attempted suicide but was shaken out of his dark stupor by an unidentified black woman who stood in his hospital room and said, “Some of us care about you.” She threw the switch that reconnected him to God. He came to realize that a ministry awaited him.
In 1969, with signs declaring “we’re not afraid anymore,” Perry led a nighttime march down Hollywood Boulevard calling for the end to sodomy laws and a small picket protesting anti-gay job discrimination, where he met Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay and his lover John Burnside and had no idea who they were. In January 1970, he sat in at the counter of Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood, demanding that the owner take down his “Fagots Stay Out” sign above the bar. He also led hundreds of marchers demanding police reform.
On March 9, 1970, Perry led 120 marchers to rally behind the pre-bathhouse Dover Hotel in downtown LA to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Howard Efland, who had been beaten to death by two LAPD officers. He attended the inquest and heard the police explain that one of the officers had “fallen” on Efland, rupturing his spleen and that the broken bones and cuts were a result of him having fallen out of the police car, not being dragged feet first down three flights of stairs after having been beaten up and then kicked. “There were two eyewitnesses,” Perry says. “The City Attorney asked the first one, a drag queen wearing female clothes, ‘are you a homosexual?’ She answered, ‘Yes,” and the eyes of the jurors closed. They didn’t want to hear any more.”
By May 1970, Perry’s Metropolitan Community Church held packed services at the 350-plus seat Encore Theatre on Virgil Avenue in Hollywood.
The first-ever Pride parade on June 28 went off without a hitch. Until the end. Perry, Carol Shepard, head of L.A. chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, and lesbian activist Kelly Longman sat down on the corner of Las Palmas Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard saying they would not move until someone from city government came to discuss gay rights. They were soon arrested for “vicious and malicious blocking of a sidewalk with intent to do harm,” says Perry, whose mentor was civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The two women were released but Perry spent the night in jail. When finally released by a judge, Perry trekked to the federal building and staged a sit-in and hunger strike for 10 days. Finally, City Council member Robert Stevenson and his wife Peggy came and spoke to him, enabling Perry to break his fast.
But societal hatred of gays, which the LAPD reinforced, constantly threatened to ruin lives. In 1973, for instance, police arrested 39 gay men in Griffith Park as “fire hazards.” That was in addition to the usual bar and bathhouse raids. However, 1973 saw a spike in violence, with MCC as a prime target. On Jan. 27, the “mother church” in Los Angeles was nearly destroyed. A second arson fire on April 6 left only the walls standing. But it was the June 24, 1973 fire in New Orleans that still brings Perry to tears.
There were 36 MCC churches around the country by 1973, including one in the French Quarter. After the service, many members, including straight women with their children, would go to the UpStairs Lounge for continued worship and to socialize. “We didn’t care,” Perry said at the time. “If Jesus could turn water into wine, hell, we could worship in a bar.”
The free beer party had ended and a doorbell rang, as if someone asked for a cab. The bartender opened the door and a fireball burst in. The stairs leading out were already ablaze. Some patrons were able to get out the back exit, but many were trapped as flames engulfed the walls and windows encased with metal bars. Firefighters found some charred bodies embracing, others pressed against the windows. MCC leader Rev. Bill Larson’s body was stuck in between the bars—his body left exposed to passersby. Like others who died there that night, Larson had not come out to his family and his mother refused to collect his remains. In all, 32 people died as a result of the fire, covered by the media, but without mentioning the site was a gay bar. Survivors had to go to work the next day and not share their grief for fear of losing their job or housing.
Perry found out in the early morning of June 25. He had spent the day at the 4th annual Gay Pride parade and later gathered with around 800 people on the beach in Santa Monica, with a police helicopter overhead. Heartbroken and in shock, he immediately flew to New Orleans, only to find that even in death, the gays were defiled.
“Someone said it was just a bunch of faggots,” Perry told a local newspaper. “But we knew them as people, and as brothers and sisters, and we will never forget them.”
No one offered a place to hold memorial services until the black minister of a predominately white Methodist congregation came forward and offered a July 1 service. No one was arrested, though the man suspected of the arson committed suicide the following year.
The arson and violence did not end. On July 27, 1973, the MCC Church in San Francisco burned to the ground. But instead of surrendering to fear, Perry expanded and by 1985, there were 200 MCC churches in nine countries.
The New Orleans fire was the worst mass gay murder in U.S. history until the terrorist attack that killed 49 and wounded 53 mostly gay Latinos at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in the early morning hours of June 12 last year. The organizers of the Christopher Street West LGBT Pride parade had to think twice about whether to go forward or cancel the parade out of respect for the dead. And then came word that Santa Monica police had just arrested a man from Indiana with scores of guns and bomb-making material in his car—on his way to West Hollywood for the Pride parade.
Just like rounding the corner of McCadden Place onto Hollywood Boulevard in 1970, it took a tremendous act of courage to resist the fear and go forward with the Pride parade in 2016. This year’s #ResistMarch is a shout out to all the outrage the LGBT community has endured over the years.
Troy Perry has already had his parade—interestingly, in Cuba, once a country that put gays in camps—for which Fidel Castro later apologized. In fact, Perry says, it was his idea that they hold a parade instead of a march. Two years ago, Perry and his husband Phillip Ray De Blieck were in Cuba for the Eighth Annual March against Homophobia and Transphobia, a festive “conga” march celebrated by about 1,000 LGBT Cubans and allies. Perry suggested that they have floats, like a carnival and this year, they did—with Perry and De Blieck riding with Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, in a 1955 De Soto. “Again, we’ve affected the world,” Perry says with glee and astonishment.
Perry was in Havana on May 12 as the first American to receive Cuba’s CENESEX award. The gala in the Karl Marx Theater was attended by 5,000, among whom were the U.S., French, and Swiss ambassadors and Cuba’s Minister of Culture. Mariela Castro Espín made the presentation and, since she is a member of the National Assembly and head of the pro-LGBT National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX stands for Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual)—the entire event was televised live on Cuban television.
“I was nervous for the first time in my life,” Perry says, especially since he needed to stop for the translator and applause.
Perry thanked CENESEX for the honor and praised Mariela Castro Espín. “You don’t have to be Lesbian, Gay, Bi or Trans to see discrimination for what it is!”
And then the 77-year old got personal, talking about his difficult childhood and Pentecostal upbringing. “Yes, there is a price be paid sometimes for being a part of the LGBTQ community. But I know a truth, ‘God did not create me so God could have someone to sit around and hate!’ Things do get better!,” Perry said.
“In the early days of our movement in America, after I founded the Metropolitan Community Churches and became a LGBTQ activist, I had people try to murder me. I was slapped in the face, and spit on. The FBI kept files on me. Twenty one Metropolitan Community Churches were burned down and desecrated. Eight Metropolitan Community Church pastors were murdered and all of that happened in my country!”
But, Perry said, “my life has only gotten better! There is no greater revenge, than coming out of the closet!’ Perry told his Cuban hosts, sharing Pride over the span of time.