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Reverend Magora Kennedy was 14-years-old when her mother gave her a choice: she could either get married or be sent away to Utica, the mental institution in upstate New York where gay youth were commonly sent to undergo conversion therapy. This was the early '50s and word had started to spread around Saratoga Springs about Kennedy's crushes on other girls.
But Kennedy was smart.
With a forged baptismal certificate that said she was 18, she took the entrance exam for the U.S. Air Force, passed, and soon found herself in Waco, Texas where at 14-years-old, she began her training. "I really thought I was free because, in those days, once you passed the test, they shipped you immediately," she says on this week's LGBTQ&Apodcast, but her escape was cut short after a couple of weeks. "My mother had private detectives trying to find out where I was at and that's where they found me."
Kennedy did get married, though the marriage was quickly annulled. Her second husband was a friend from childhood who gave her children and the ability to be open about her sexuality. "He was bisexual, so if he got discovered he was going to get kicked out of the army. I said, 'Not a problem. We can just get married.' They used to have the saying 'cover girl', 'cover boy'. And that was the way people that were gay...that's what they did."
On top of raising five children, Kennedy was a part of the Black Panther Party, attended the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, and eventually went to seminary school. Reverend Kennedy is one of the subjects of the new documentary, Cured, on PBS. (Now streaming on PBS Passport.)
You can listen to Reverend Kennedy on the LGBTQ&A podcast and read excerpts below.
Jeffrey Masters: 14 is a pretty shocking age to get married. Did it feel that way to you then?
Magora Kennedy: Well, back in those days, parents really had the say-so over their children. I managed to escape for two weeks. I had a forged baptismal certificate that said I was 18 and I took the Air Force test in Albany, New York and passed it. I really thought I was free because, in those days, once you passed the test, they shipped you immediately. So, we were all shipped off to Waco, Texas.
JM: How long was it until your mother showed up there?
MK: In two weeks she did. My mother had private detectives trying to find out where I was at and that's where they found me. We were on the plane on the way back to and she says, "You will get married in June." So, the freedom didn't last that long. However, my one-up on my mother was, she had a person for me to marry and I was determined not to marry that person, but I knew that I had to get married.
My grandfather on my father's side lived in New York in Harlem. I had seen this little storefront church and, of course, I'd never heard dance music coming out of a church. So, that fascinated me. I would go back and forth there and one particular Sunday when I got in, the mother of the church was talking about the fact that the minister was not married and if he didn't get married that they were going to find another minister. So, I told him about what they were thinking and I said, "The best way you can save your church is we get married." So, he agreed to that and I called my mother. Told her, "Oh, I'm in love, I'm going to marry a minister." Then of course, naturally she was thrilled.
JM: How long were you married to him?
MK: Oh God, very shortly. I think it was about three months, to my recollection. He told me I was his property. When I came out to him, he was like, "Oh my goodness," and said I was on my way to hell if I didn't repent.
The thing that really got it was he had slapped me and, of course, I fought him back. And he took a knife and was going to try to cut my face. And I threw my arm up. I have a scar on my arm now, to protect my face. And I'm screaming for help. The people heard what was going on and when the police got there, there was this older sergeant on the police force and he squinted and looked at me and he said, "How old are you?" And so I said, "I'm 14." And he said, "What?!"
Long story short, the marriage was annulled, although it was consummated. But by that time, I had so much anger it was unbelievable. Anger about the fact that my mother made me get married and the fact that she never said that anything was wrong with me until it started getting around Saratoga about me chasing the girls.
JM: At what point did you start to find community and other gay people?
MK: After my children were born, especially my first two, because it was back and forth between Saratoga and Canada. I hadn't really gone fully into show business yet, but I could work temp work for New York State Department Taxation and Finance.
What happened was Thursdays...Thursdays would be the day that people would wear a certain color to know who was gay and who wasn't. The guys would either wear white or purple socks. And the women, we'd always have like a little boutonniere or something on, either purple or white. On Thursdays after work, everybody would carpool because the nearest gay bar at that time was in Newburgh, New York. And we used to carpool down to Newburgh, New York and there was a place in Newburgh called Yesterday's Inn. That's where we would go and we'd hang out, probably until about maybe 7:00, 8:00, and then make it back up to Albany, so we could get to work the next day.
Then as I got older and began to leave Saratoga and started coming down toward New York, I was shocked at the fact that the gay guys were in one place and gay women were in other places. Whereas, in upstate New York, everybody, gay women, gay men, they hung together because as the old saying goes, safety in numbers.
JM: At this time, you had kids. Was this with your second husband?
MK: Yes. I knew my second husband since we were like kids. We always knew that we were different and so we became close friends.
Years later, ironically, he was in the army and he was a paratrooper. He was bisexual, so if he got discovered he was going to get kicked out of the army. I said, "Not a problem. We can just get married." They used to have the saying "cover girl", "cover boy". And that was the way people that were gay...that's what they did.
JM: Despite you both being queer and having this arrangement, would you consider it a happy marriage?
MK: Well, we were happy because my husband, for a long time, was with his lover and, of course, I was with mine. And we were doing all right until I got pregnant with his child. Then, after that he'd say, "Well, we're no longer going to be gay." And he started to dictate about what was going to be. And I was like, "Oh no, no, no, no. This is not gonna work because I am who I am. You are who you are. We're gonna make the best of what you call a bad situation. But I'm not changing."
The thing was, I was going shopping and this guy walked up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. "Your Eugene's Kennedy's wife." And I'm like, "Yeah. And who are you?" And he was like, "Well, bitch, I am the other." And I'm like, "Whoa, wait a minute. Who are you calling a bitch?" And I almost mopped up the supermarket with him.
And when I got back to the house, I packed up my kids. I told him, I said, "The of lies that you told...You went and told that guy that I had forbid you from seeing him. And he told me that he was the other wife." And I'm like, "You can have him 'cause I'm out of here. I'm not going through this."
When I went back to Saratoga, his mother told him that I was his wife and I had to do what he said to do. She said, "You bring her back here. And if you have to, beat her." When he came banging on the door, he came in and he said, "You're going back to Schenectady with me." And I said, "I'm not going anywhere with you." And he snatched me and he slapped me.
I took my grandmother's iron skillet and knocked him across the head and knocked him out.
They had to take him to Saratoga Hospital where he had a concussion. And I said, "My father didn't put his hands on me. And you're not about to. And I'm not going anywhere with you." And I told my mother, "I'm going to do what I know what to do," and that was to sing and dance. And because of racism being the way it was in the United States, most of the time I was a singer and dancer, an emcee, a comedian in Canada. And I worked usually six to seven months out of the year. Whereas, here in the United States, I'd be lucky if I could get something for one night because of racism.
JM: What was it like to come out to your kids as gay?
MK: I let them know early on. My mother, "Oh, my grandsons, what are they gonna think?" I said, "Well, I don't care what they think. Thing is, I'm paying the cost to be the boss. And I'm taking care of everybody." By that time I was taking care of her too. I said, "They're going to know from me. They're not going to hear it in the streets like you heard it in the streets about me. They're going to know. If they don't like it, they're gonna get their education and when they get 18, there's the door."
And that's the way I raised them.
JM: Did you know many other gay people with kids back then?
MK: Yes I did. But most of them were in the closet. And when I was involved in Stonewall, I lost a lot of friends because they were still in the closet and they were living that double life. And, for me, this was over. Stonewall, to me, was like coming home.
JM: You were driving in a car when you heard about the police raid at Stonewall.
MK: In the broadcasts in those days, they had no problem calling people faggots and bulldaggers. And what they said was, "A bunch of faggots are raising hell in Greenwich Village." And I'm like, "What? Wait a minute, this sounds like something I think I want to be involved in."
I was driving my little in the closet, friends up to Ptown because that's where everybody that was in the closet would go for the summer to be with their lovers, especially in the educational field. I got them to the nearest town. I gave the taxi driver the money that they had given me and I said, "Get them to Ptown. I'm going back to New York." And I did. And I got into the fray on Saturday night.
JM: Were you scared for your safety at any point?
MK: Well, I'm an original Black Panther. No, I was not.
I had been in the Black Panther Party, me and my kids, and so no, I didn't have any fear. All I thought I about was like, "Hey, we're finally gonna have our liberation one way or the other." That's where my head was.
JM: It was the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. that like spurred you to join the Black Panther Party. How did that change you?
MK: That's correct. I was in the Boston and the New Haven chapter. And a lot of the Panthers in those chapters were nurses and a couple of them were doctors. And see, so many of those things that happened in the Black Panther Party are what they're doing today.
For instance, you have walk-in clinics. The walk-in clinics were the idea of Fred Hampton who was assassinated in the Black Panther Party in Chicago. Most all of the different party leaders had come to Chicago to see what was the working model of the walk-in clinics.
JM: Does it feel like we're still fighting for the same things that you were fighting for them? What is your assessment of how much progress we have or have not made?
MK: Well, things are better than they were, but they still have a long way to go. What I'm concerned about now is that young gay people and trans, especially trans people of color, are being thrown out of their homes, committing suicide...these little young people who feel like they have nothing to live for.
And then, also getting rid of conversion therapy. Back in the day when people were put into places like Utica and Bellevue, men were castrated and women were given hysterectomies. And then the so-called gentler way was to start using conversion therapy. It's still going on today.
JM: Were you able to be an out as a lesbian while a part of the Black Panthers? This was the late '60s.
MK: Yeah, because, like I said, I was in the Boston chapter and when this witch hunt went on and they started throwing Black Panthers out, those that were gay. And a lot of them had come back from service. They had been overseas and come back. And they were getting thrown out.
And so, I told my commander, "I'm leaving. I'm taking my sons and I'm going because I worked too hard and ain't nobody throwing me out of nothing." So, we left. And they said, "Well, we'll protect you." I said, "I don't need protection. I need to be open. And I am not going to subject myself to this."
JM: It sounds like you decided very early on that you had no interest in living in the closet.
MK: That's right. That is correct. I always said I was like the salmon swimming upstream.
JM: I've seen you described as the "gay reverend." Is that a label that you use for yourself?
MK: Well, it was kind of put on to me, but it's OK because I was out in Seminary too.
I did attend New York Theological Seminary. I was put on social probation there and then eventually left. They said I asked too many questions. And when I asked the questions, I had proof about some of the things that they were saying that was incorrect. But when you go up against professors, and those that are in charge, first, they put me on social probation. And then, finally, I said, "Look, I don't need social probation. I have proven to you everything that I said and told you where you could look it up. So, I'm leaving."
So, again, that's me. Nobody's putting me out of no place. I'll leave.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, Billie Jean King, and Roxane Gay.
New episodes come out every Tuesday.