To kick off LGBT Pride month, I am extraordinarily proud to present the legendary gay rights activist Troy Perry, co-founder of the world’s first gay pride parade, which took place in Hollywood on June 28, 1970. We stand on the shoulders of giants like Troy.
You’ve just returned from Cuba—what was happening there?
I was the first American citizen to receive Cuba's CENESEX award in front of almost 5000 people at the 10th Cuban Gala Against Homophobia at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana. The National Center for Sex Education [Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual] is directed by Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, a champion of gay rights in Cuba.
Do you have a history with Cuba?
My dad was the biggest bootlegger in all of Florida, but he owned a tobacco farm too. The only country he went to outside the U.S. was Cuba. There’s a picture of him taken in the 1930s sitting in a wicker chair waiting for a ship to take him to Havana. He wanted to know what the Cubans were doing to be the gold standard of tobacco in the world. I’ve been honored by all sorts of groups, but little Cuba meant a lot to me.
What kind of obstacles did you face as an openly gay man in the 60s?
In 1965 I was drafted when I was 25 years old into the U.S. army and sent to Germany. I was a cryptographer, and openly gay. I had no problems with the military but back then in the 60’s, under tuberculosis and cancer they asked the question do you have ‘homosexual tendencies’. I said no I don't have homosexual tendencies I am a homosexual! They would ask are you are practicing homosexual and I would answer “I have it down pat”. It was like that until don't ask don't tell in the early 90s.
When did homosexuality become legal in California?
Back then if you were a lesbian you had to have three pieces of female clothing, if you were a man you had to have three pieces of male clothing under your drag or you’d be carted off to jail. That's how stupid the laws were in California. I wanted allies. The only African American in the room was Mervyn Dymally, California’s first black lieutenant governor. In 1975 Governor Jerry Brown [with the support of Assemblyman Willie Brown who first introduced the bill in 1970] then signed the Consenting Adult Sex Bill that legalized homosexuality in California. It said that whatever we did in the privacy of our own bedroom is nobody’s business.
Where did gays and lesbians go to meet back then?
Huntington Park, where I founded MCC, had two gay bars. Our Chief of Police in the little town of Huntington Park, a separate City at the edge of LA, had a lesbian sister as it turned out. He would not even let his officers come in the gay bar. There was a hall there where the big GGRC drag ball took place every year, purposefully because the LAPD could not make any arrests that were out of their jurisdiction. We had a lesbian bartender and if anyone came in trying to cause trouble she took a pool cue and would wait outside with the person for the cops to come pick them up. They didn't come into the bar. It was called the Islander. The other bar was called the Little Tokyo.
Anywhere else good?
I’d been to a private bar called Canyon Club in Topanga Canyon where you went to the front door and you buzzed. They had a window and they would decide if you were gay or not. An ex vice officer of the LAPD opened the bar because he had a gay nephew who had invited me. Then they buzz you through the second door. The nephew told me if the police come the lights will go up and there will be a red light that will twinkle for a little bit. If there is a lesbian couple here grab one of them as they won’t arrest you if you were dancing with a woman.
Did you have an inkling that you might be gay while married to your wife?
When we were married I went into a bookstore in Santa Ana where I pastored. I saw "Physique" magazine. I had known I was different but couldn't face it. My church had told me if I would just marry a good woman that would take care of that so I married my pastor’s daughter. Two children later here we are in Santa Ana. I asked the lady if she had anything on homosexuality. It was an education. I believe today that she was a lesbian. When I got back I threw everything away except “The Homosexual in America" which said there were millions of people just like me. I hid the books between the mattress of the bed.
What was your childhood like?
We didn't dance or drink although of course my father was a bootlegger. My mother was Southern Baptist, my father’s family were Pentecostals. I was sexually raped when I was in my teens. He was an alcoholic. My mother remarried a man when my Dad died. She said to me “you have to help me raise your brothers”. My father died being chased by the police in Tallahassee Florida. My Uncle Howard, who was married to my father's sister, was the grand dragon of the Klu Klux Clan for the state of Florida. This is my history.
What are your earliest religious memories?
I have an interesting story some of which I have never told. When I was eight years old Uncle Howard died and I was taken to his funeral at a little Methodist church in the woods. After the funeral we went out to the graveside, the Pastor nodded towards the woods and hundreds of ghosts started coming out of the woods. After it’s over with we get in the car and mother says to my father I can't believe what we just saw and he said we could never talk about this.
What was it like growing up in the segregated South?
Many years later I was passing through Tallahassee and visited my Aunt Bessie. I went to her home. I’m 27 years old. She goes into the kitchen and moves a rug and pulls out her Klan robes and Klan bonds. She said I guess I’ll never get the money out of this and I said I hope you never do.
Was there racial segregation in your town?
I was one of those Southern kids that grew up with black kids. In the South, before puberty, white and black kids played together. When I was a little kid we were so poor we were the end of the line of white families closest to Frenchtown, the segregated neighborhood. I believe this with all my heart that what happened were life lessons.
How did things change after your Dad died?
When my Dad died and I was trying to help my mother. She had five boys In the South you got married again very quickly as a widow. Her new husband was an alcoholic and there was always tension in the house. He’d put a gun in my mother’s mouth and said if you ever leave me I’ll kill you. He moved us away from Tallahassee and would not let me go to church because someone might find out what’s going on at the house. He tried to force my little brother to eat liver, stuffing it down his throat. My mother jumps up, screaming at him to stop, and she picked up a beer bottle and broke it over his head. He knocked my mother down on the floor. I’m 13 years old. He pulls the phone out of the wall. I ran out of the house over the hill to a neighbour's house. I told them my stepfather was trying to kill my mother. She pulled out a pistol because the law in a lot of Southern states was that if you come on our property, they can shoot you. She walked me back home and mother was sitting there crying with a black eye.
How did that make you feel?
I loved my mother. To this day if I have a vision of God, it'd be my mother. She loved me and all her boys unconditionally. When I came out her biggest fear was that someone would hurt me. I begged my mother to not let him back. When he came home I knew from his look he’s going to murder me. He hates me because I reminded my mother of my father, Troy Senior. He announced a week later that his brother was visiting but it wasn't his brother, it was some guy he’d met on a shrimp boat. And he brought him in to teach me a lesson.
This man crawls in my bed in the middle of the night, puts his hand over my mouth.…I had never had anal sex. And it hurt so bad. I thought this is God doing this to me because he knows my secret feelings that I’m different somehow. I was such a sad child. The woman who drove the school bus was probably a lesbian, she wore comfortable shoes and had a baseball bat. She could tell that day I got on the bus. I justified it by telling her that he’d stolen my tip money so I put $10 in my pants, along with my toothbrush. I was so broken. I walked into the school, walked out the back door to the Greyhound bus station in Daytona. That was 1953. I said I wanted a ticket to Moultrie, Georgia where my aunt and uncle lived.
What do you remember about that journey as a 13 year old kid?
The buses back then acted as city buses too so if you were country people you’d just wave it down. A person gets on and was in male clothes but with lipstick. A very rough looking male wearing makeup. It got deathly quiet and h/she was going to the next little town. We dropped the person off and everyone started talking again.
Did you ever tell your Mom what happened?
I found out later, after I ran away, that my mother ended up screaming at her husband “if you’ve done anything to him I will kill you”. She became a tiger and scared him to death. I could never tell me mother what happened. Even as an adult.
What impact did that have on you, running away and moving to Georgia?
My aunt said “you have a calling to the ministry don't you”. I love church. And I knew I loved the Lord. They were Pentecostals. She started the snake handling churches. I was not into any of that. My other relatives were Trinitarian which was ‘Jesus Only’. She said “God is going to use you but not in the way you think.” Women weren't allowed to cut their hair. Men couldn’t wear jewellery.
They packed a little suitcase for me and I moved to El Paso Texas to live with my Aunt Bessie, my father’s sister where I was the only white boy in a school of mostly Mexicans. I ended up going back home and my mother is Baptist. I was licensed to preach at the age of 15. I had clergy in my family. I was tall for my age. When I was 18 I was already evangelizing. My Uncle Roy, the shortest Mason in America, he could tell that something was wrong. By now it’s two years later and we went to pick up my goods. He had a gun with him, he was a Baptist minister but people are afraid of short people. In the South the women’s rights went through the husband, didn't matter if she was a widow.
How did these experiences impact your politics today?
Before Trump was elected I really thought all the things are going to come together. We won marriage, the big enchilada. But I discovered very quickly that we have to fight for the refried beans and the little enchiladas too. Of course I voted for Hillary Clinton and we went to bed early on Election Night, I didn't see any way that he could win. I woke up the next morning in shock. Americans forget we’re a Republic, and there’s a very small group of people that elect the President. Even though she won 3 million more votes the Electoral College voted him.
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.