“When you’re only 11 years old and your daddy is shot running from cops, you know damn well you have some hard choices coming at you. Keep your legendary family’s bootlegger tradition alive and risk the same yourself, or take a different route? Troy Perry did the latter. By 15, he dropped out of high school and become a certified Baptist preacher. Soon he was married to a pastor’s daughter (but still fooling around with boys).
At 19, one of his gay dalliances confessed to his church administrator and Perry was booted. He and his wife moved to California, but their marriage dissolved after she found a copy of his other bible, Donald Webster Cory’s The Homosexual in America, under the mattress.
After a stint in the Army and a failed suicide attempt, Perry was looking for something more. After the cops raided the Black Cat bar in Los Angeles and arrested LGBT patrons, a pre-Stonewall protest broke out. A friend of his was arrested and it became a wake-up call. He needed God back in his life — and his friends and community needed a place to worship free of stigma and judgment.
Perry put an announcement in The Advocate in 1968, announcing a Christian worship service for gays. The first service attracted 12 people, Perry recalled in The Gay Crusaders, “Nine were my friends who came to console me and to laugh, and three came as a result of the ad.”
Later that year Reverend Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church, the country’s first truly LGBT- affirming Christian ministry.
Services grew quickly, and by 1971, it had over a thousand parishioners. The upstart church courted controversy by performing same-sex weddings and ordaining female pastors. But LGBT folks of all stripes — from affluent attorneys to street sex workers — flocked to Perry’s “no judgment” version of Christianity.
“Troy is responsible for a lot of people being alive,” insists former comedian and activist Robin Tyler, a lesbian who would become one of Perry’s closest allies. So many of their big moments have been intertwined.
The Jewish comedian remembers hearing about Perry before they met in the late 1960s. “I thought, that’s the answer to Christianity — our own Christian!”
Tyler approached Perry at an event, with her usual aggressive style, and “Reverend Troy?” “He said, ‘Call me Troy,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘OK, Troy, do you believe Jews go to hell?’ He said, ‘No, I don’t. I said, ‘OK, then you can call me Robin.’”
Perry and Tyler and their respective spouses laugh at the recollection of when the sweet Southern pastor that fans call the “gay pope” met the ball-busting “king of the dykes,” as Tyler was lovingly known.
“Everybody calls you that,” Tyler pokes, about the Pope reference.
“I know. I’m used to it,” Perry shrugs. “They always said it, even my lovers. Except Phillip.” That would be his husband, Phillip Ray De Blieck, whom Perry has been with for 32 years.
Out of Perry’s earshot, Tyler says, in serious admiration, “He’s saved lives. He’s saved thousands of lives. There were tens of thousands of people who would have killed themselves because they were told that they were bad, because they were gay.”
“Frank Kameny and Troy Perry are the fathers of the gay movement,” declares Diane Olson, Tyler’s wife of 22 years (only a couple of which are “legal,” she jokes).
“I loved Frank,” Perry says, deferring the praise. “Frank was a friend, so I don’t take anything from Frank Kameny. He was fired from his job by the U.S. government. And they lived to regret it. He pulled off that little piece of it — and that was his. He rode it until they apologized — the president of the United States did.”
From Olson’s perspective, Perry and Tyler were at the center of so much change. In 2004, Gloria Allred, the attorney for Olson, Tyler, De Blieck, and Perry, filed the first marriage equality lawsuit in California, arguing that the state’s definition of marriage (as a civil contract between a man and a woman) was unconstitutional. Their suit was later consolidated with others, including that of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Together for 55 years, Lyon and Martin helped found the first lesbian civil rights group, Daughters of Bilitis, and edited the lesbian publication, The Ladder, in the 1960s.
Those suits temporarily won same-sex marriage rights in California — until voters passed Proposition 8. To publicize the case, the normally reserved Olson came out about a secret few knew: She’s the granddaughter of California’s first elected governor, Culbert Olson, and her great-grandmother was a suffragette who became Utah’s first female elected official. Governor Olson was a big proponent of the separation of church and state and originally refused to put his hand on a Bible at his swearing-in ceremony. It was that legacy she evoked in reclaiming her heritage.
Olson, who grew up a prototypical California girl in the 1960s, says she wants to be remembered for her small role in gaining marriage equality and her own sobriety. “I’m a recovering heroin addict,” she says. “One in a thousand get sober and stay sober. I am that one, and I am very proud of that.”
But back in the 1973, long before both couples were married, someone burned down Perry’s original church building, destroying all their early records. “We had five of our churches that were set on fire that year,” Perry recalls. MCC had begun spreading across the country, with churches opening up rapidly and threatening some community’s perspectives on what it meant to be Christian. “And 21 [ultimately] were set on fire, desecrated.”
Tyler and Perry wanted action. They became part of a small coalition of people who organized the first LGBT March on Washington in 1979. The were both powerful figures in the movement at the time. Tyler was known for producing events and readily pushing people, especially gay men, out of her way to get things done — her way. The activist-producer-performer doesn’t mince words and she doesn’t take umbrage at others who don’t like her.
“Cleve Jones once said something, a big compliment. At the March on Washington, he said, ‘I’m not doing a Robin Tyler extravaganza.’”
“I said, ‘How nice … put my name on it,’” she snarks. During the marriage lawsuit, a reporter from a Jewish magazine asked her, circuitously, how she felt about “intermarriage” since Olson isn’t Jewish. Tyler retorted quickly, “If women want to marry men, it’s perfectly OK with me!”
In 1959, Tyler was 17 when she came out as a lesbian after she discovered The Ladder, the first widely accessible lesbian magazine. “In it was an article by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who said there was nothing wrong with being a lesbian, but to think about moving to a big city immediately.”
She left Manitoba, Canada, for New York’s Greenwich Village soon afterward. The first time she hit a gay club, she was arrested by police for “cross-dressing.” Instead of calling an attorney, Tyler called the tabloids. A gay nightclub owner saw the hubbub and hired her to become a female-female impersonator. She performed as Judy Garland, actually singing with a 15-piece orchestra. She can still do so, sitting at the grand piano in her foyer in Southern California home where she’s lived for over 30 years. On the property is a guest house where her former partner Patty Harrison lives. They’ve been “life partners,” as Tyler says, for 53 years now. They began as what was called the first lesbian feminist comedy act (at the time they were billed a women’s lib act, and they hosted ABC’s Krofft Comedy Hour (with greats like Red Foxx and Sheryl Lee Ralph) and produced two of their own comedy albums.
Tyler also produced the Southern and West Coast Women’s Music Festivals (the second and third largest women’s festivals after Michfest).
Unlike that festival, Tyler says, “We did not have a trans problem. I did not have an ‘us versus them’ attitude,” in part because of her job at the 82 Club, where, she recalls, “The waiters were women who took hormones and most had mustaches. Some of the impersonators took hormones and a few talked about wanting to transition, although that was not the language we used then. I heard about the attacks, and the raids, and the murders and the loss of families and children. These were some of the first friends I met in New York. There was no ‘other,’ just ‘us.’”
Tyler will be remembered as the first “out” lesbian or gay comic to perform on national television, records, and live performances (her first album, Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Groom, was distributed by Judy Dlugacz’s Olivia Records, which became what is now the world’s largest lesbian travel company).
She produced 24 women’s music and comedy festivals and the main stage for three of the marches on Washington. (1979, 1987, and 1993). In 1987, at the request of two men, she added a mass wedding ceremony to the event.
“Except for PFLAG, the entire march committee voted it down, but I did it anyway,” she says. “Thousands came, and it became the first mass demonstration for marriage equality.”
She’s doesn’t keep secret that she was influenced by other activists, including Barbara Gittings, transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, Mattachine founder Harry Hay, and Nicole Murray-Ramirez, Empress of the Imperial Court. (“Nicole use to call Troy, Nicole, and I the Golden Girls.”) She mentions the overlooked impact of historian Lillian Faderman frequently, and says, “We need to make a lot of movies. Because Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings deserve it. Troy certainly deserves it. He is one of the most courageous men I know.”
Perry’s legacy is enshrined in books and the 2007 documentary Call Me Troy. Today, there are 222 MCC churches in 37 different countries. In 1968, Perry, then 28, performed what Time magazine called “the first public same-sex wedding ceremony in the United States” for the two Latino gay men who had been the first to ask. He officiated funerals too, tragic ones during the AIDS epidemic, and ones for national LGBT leaders, including Barbara Gittings.
Once Gittings and her partner of many decades, Kay Tobin Lahusen, stayed with Perry and his husband, along with Martin and Lyons. “Barbara and Kay were gay identified and Del and Phyllis came [out] into the feminist movement. They were women [not “gay”]. I have to tell you, all those early leaders thought I was crazy for wanting marriage. ‘It will never happen,’ they kept telling me.”
He filed the first same-gender marriage suit (in 1970; it lost) and then with Tyler and their spouses, the 2004 legal challenge. MCC clergy have performed around a quarter million same-sex weddings and, until marriage equality was the law of the land, each couple was reportedly told Perry’s famous quote: “Your marriage is blessed by God, but is not yet recognized by the government. We’re working on that.””