I met Troy Perry for lunch in Silver Lake, in Los Angeles, at a little Mexican restaurant called Casita del Campo, the oldest "gay" restaurant in the city. A "gay" restaurant these days sounds like an anachronism, but 40 years ago it wasn't exactly safe for gay men and women to gather in public places — thus a place like this, where I saw what has to be the largest rubber tree on earth growing out of a little pot on the floor. Arched over my head and reaching about 30 or 40 feet in every direction, I kept stealing glances at it in between bites of my enchilada.
I first heard of Troy years ago when a relative mentioned that someone had written a book and printed excerpts of a letter written by my Uncle Ronnie about being gay and the son of Oral Roberts. At the time, I was closeted and married and probably in a similar place my uncle was when he wrote that letter, and I didn't want to know anything about it. It hit too close to home. And, even when I was in the middle of getting divorced, coming out, and crying on the floor just about every night, I didn't want to see this letter.
But when I finally started reading, I ordered some of Troy's books from Amazon, and I called him up and said I wanted to talk. That conversation, three years later, is still going.
Who is Troy Perry?
Read all about him here if you'd like, in Wikipedia — in short, Troy was a Church of God minister in the mid-1960s, and gay, and struggled for a few years trying to figure out how to reconcile his faith with his sexuality. He was kicked out of his church, he enlisted for a couple years, he tried to commit suicide, and he tried, and tried, and tried to find his way into romance. None of it was really working out.
He came across The Homosexual in America, a book by Donald Webster Cory that is now out of print and, to me, one of the most important records of gay life in pre-Stonewall America. I quote from Cory almost every time I speak publicly; he's that good.
Troy, inspired by Cory’s book on homosexuality, decided to do the unthinkable by starting the first "gay" Christian church in Los Angeles with a congregation of 13 people in 1968 (one year before Stonewall). He realized that his spirituality was the thing he missed most as an out-of-the-closet gay man and decided that he didn't want to come out and throw away his religious beliefs.
"When younger, I was thin as a rail. As I've grown older, I've put on weight,” Troy said. “I have continued to love myself in all those roles. Part of my spirituality, I always tell people, is to accept yourself for who you are."
Troy’s 13-member church later became the MCC, the Metropolitan Community Church, which now has 250 congregations in 23 different countries. If you're curious, read his books, which describe the difficulties he had with many of his early churches — many were bombed or burned to the ground, over, and over, and over again. To many white Evangelical Christians, the opening of a "gay" church in town was akin to the physical presence of the devil on Main Street, and they did everything they could get away with legally (and illegally) to hurt these churches.
“We've had drive-by shootings,” Troy said. “I've been spat on, slapped, shot at. One guy tried to stab me with a broken beer bottle. But the way we look at it, if people do the worst they can, we'll still wake up in glory."
Suffice to say that to the people who burned these churches down to the ground, they saw in Troy's church-planting an end to the world they were used to. Amen to that.
We all are (mostly) familiar with the Stonewall riots, and the various left-wing gay groups that fought hand over fist to secure rights for homosexuals, and we all owe them a huge debt. What we don't hear about very often is the struggle that was carried on by people like Troy Perry, people who said we don't have to leave things like marriage and spirituality behind when we come out. The current fight for same-sex marriage is a direct result of the behind-the-scenes struggle of men like Troy who say that gays really do want the same thing as everybody else.
Don’t we? I get asked this all the time. Do we really want to serve in the military? Do we really want gay marriage? Many gays and lesbians who dominated the movement for the first 20 years after Stonewall bravely questioned some of the central tenets of what it meant to be American, maintaining that middle-of-the-road values of the military and marriage were things that gays do not want a part of.
Me, I want the right to choose. I am not fighting so that we can all enlist or get married. I'm fighting for the right to choose, for the right to be in the same place all heterosexuals find themselves. How can we truly say how we feel about an issue if we don't have the right to even make up our mind?
Meeting Troy at Casita del Campo reminded me of the feeling I experienced while first reading his books several years ago — a sense I was in the presence of a man who fought huge battles and maintained, throughout, an easygoing smile. There is no bitterness in Troy. There is a warm, loving, grateful respect to simply be alive and well; one man trying to make the world a better place for the rest of us.
What I learned about my uncle will have to wait for later; I'm writing a book dedicated to him and don't want to give everything away. Suffice to say that Troy, as I expected, had a lot of information and a lot of respect and love for those who have come across his path, and, simultaneously, the marks of a grizzled warrior who has survived bombs, fires, rocks, and stones. Reminding me of Teddy Roosevelt's line "walk softly and carry a big stick," Troy is a gentle, twinkly-eyed general who will back up his rhetoric with lawyers if he has to, and personally face down men in the street with broken bottles in their hands and hate in their eyes.
To date, Troy is an unsung hero of the gay rights movement. Me, I'm going to start singing.
RANDY ROBERTS POTTS is the grandson to evangelical preacher Oral Roberts and a gay rights activist.