Inside The Metropolitan Community Church, Which Has Been Telling LGBTQ People God Loves Them For 50 Years

By Robert W. Fieseler
Getty

The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots was the rightful heart of this summer's World Pride celebrations.

But a lesser-known 50th anniversary predating Stonewall, a golden jubilee year for a gay group that went all but unmentioned at World Pride, had arguably as great a foundational impact on national and global queer politics: the October 6, 1968 founding of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC, for short) in Los Angeles by an activist minister named Troy Perry.

March With Joy, Anger, and Power: Why Stonewall 50 and World Pride Is So Important to LGBTQ People

On that day, responding to an ad in a somewhat ragtag newsletter for West Coast homosexuals called The Advocate—which would go on to become the influential magazine it is today—a dozen people gathered in Reverend Troy Perry’s living room to observe the defrocked minister, a man expelled from his Florida church for homosexual tendencies, preach a gay-affirming sermon and administer communion. “It was a Mass and a mess,” Perry recalled, later on.

“Everybody was scared to death,” Perry continued, recalling the terror that police would raid the service as an unlawful gathering and arrest the parishioners as sex criminals. Although that first service would be spared, police intimidation of MCC congregations became customary as their church spread its wings.

“We always got bomb threats,” Perry recalled in a recent sermon. “The police would come in with the dogs, and they’d say, ‘Get out!’” In October 1973, the Indianapolis Police Department raided an MCC prayer meeting and conducted a mass arrest of parishioners for “frequenting a dive.” Being gay and Christian, for many in the late 1960s and early 1970s, seemed an abominable, and at times unlawful, contradiction.

Presently, although the mass of organized religion is anti-LGBTQ, a majority of queer Americans are not in fact anti-religion. A 2014 Religious Landscape Study by Pew surveyed 35,000 LGB respondents: 59 percent said they were religiously affiliated, and about 50 percent identified as Christian.

A 2016 PRRI study put the numbers at 54 percent religious and 44 percent Christian, but the data is striking. Flip a coin in a random gay setting, and you’re just as likely to find a believer than not.

Such a paradox can seem unbearable for both queer atheists, who wish their community would reject the “traditional values” of mainstream religions, and for right-wing Christians seeking to purge sexual and gender minorities from their ranks and then discredit their reputations.

As a standout example, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s faith affirmations and respectability politics, especially in relation to his same-sex marriage, has met with animus from Evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham, who stated that being a gay Christian was “something to be repentant of, not to be flaunted,” and from gay New Republic writer Dale Peck, who called Buttigieg “a gay parody of heteronormative bourgeois domesticity.”

As The Daily Beast's Tim Teeman revealed, conservative commentator Erick Erickson has been inordinately focused both on Buttigieg's gay sex life, and his criticism of evangelicals who supported President Trump.

Perry’s Metropolitan Community Church grew exponentially in its first year, expanding to more than 200 members and moving into a Hollywood theater.

As noted in my book Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, Perry’s pastoral work proved revolutionary in that he appended formal spirituality to a nascent social movement—Gay Liberation—that previously lacked a religious center.

Although gay-friendly churches had existed in the U.S. since at least 1946, with the founding of the Eucharistic Catholic Church in Atlanta, the MCC represented the first gay religious network that merged a spiritual function with a platform for social action. For example, in April 1969, Perry led his church in protest of State Steamship Lines when the company fired an employee for publicly declaring his homosexuality.

Perry founded his church, it should be noted, in an era when homosexuality remained criminalized in every state except Illinois and vastly unpopular to most citizens, about seventy percent of whom deemed homosexuality to be “anti-American” or “always wrong” when polled.

No employment or housing protections existed to protect sexual minorities, and those arrested for “crimes against nature” could face immediate termination and then prosecution for felony charges with mandatory prison sentences.

By early 1970, with reverberations of Stonewall inspiring a wellspring of national activism, the MCC fellowship boasted eight congregations across seven American cities. Its surge, in fact, mimicked the spread of affinity cells for political organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and, later, the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA).

Addressing his flock in the first MCC newsletter that April, Perry asked of Christendom, “What of the homosexual? Did you weep when one of us was beaten to death by the Police in Los Angeles?... Does it upset you that there are riots in New York?”

Not all gay groups, however, welcomed the notion of a gay-friendly Jesus. Gay activist and publisher Charley Shively, who infamously burned a Bible at the 1977 Boston Pride events, wrote, “Christianity is the enemy,” and an editorial writer argued, when the MCC expanded into Toronto, that “Christian belief and gay liberation are contradictory.”

The “June 28th cell” of the Gay Liberation Front remained outspokenly anti-religious even though, ironically, they met on Sunday nights in the Manhattan basement of Church of the Holy Apostles.

Notwithstanding the rancor from within and without the movement, in June of 1970, Perry co-founded a Los Angeles parade to advance the Stonewall legacy. Called Christopher Street West, in honor of what happened on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village that previous June, it was the first “Pride parade,” with street closures and a city-sanctioned route, in American history.

An estimated 2,000 people, according to Perry, drove their floats and walked their pets down Hollywood Boulevard. That same weekend, several thousand homosexuals marched to Central Park to celebrate “Christopher Street Liberation Day”; one activist attested to The New York Times that gays have “gained a new pride.”

Gay groups in Chicago and San Francisco, where MCC missions had taken hold, also held public demonstrations. It was a moment of union for a nascent movement, in which the religious and irreligious took part.

Contentiously, especially for gay liberationists opposed to both matrimony and monogamy, Troy Perry performed what Time magazine described as the first public same-sex marriage ceremony—called a “holy union”—in the United States mere months after the first MCC service.

By 1969, an MCC holy union would become the basis of our nation’s first lawsuit seeking legal recognition of a same-sex marriage, and in 1971 Life magazine devoted an article to homosexual religion that declared, “Perry is willing to ‘marry’ homosexual couples, though the marriages are not recognized as legal by existing laws in any state.”

By 1972, the MCC had blossomed to 24 congregations and missions, including one in London, and Troy Perry, with his trademark sideburns and pink clerical collar, had become a regular media presence—perhaps the most recognizable gay face in the world. Such attention, of course, provoked backlash. 1973 would be a year of fire for the MCC faithful.

“We were sorely tried by the torch,” Perry observed in his annual State of the Church report. First in late January, an “intentional fire of suspicious origin” destroyed the MCC Mother Church in Los Angeles. In March, the MCC of Nashville went up in flames, again with arson suspected. (MCC churches are still targets; as the Durango Herald reported, earlier in August the Albuquerque, New Mexico, MCC was vandalized, leading to hundreds of dollars in repairs.)

Then on June 24, 1973, fire eviscerated the Up Stairs Lounge, a second-story gay bar in New Orleans with close ties to the local MCC congregation. This intentionally set blaze claimed the lives of 32 patrons, including one third of the MCC of New Orleans membership. It was the deadliest fire on record in New Orleans history and the largest mass killing of homosexuals in U.S. history—a record that would stand for 43 years.

Devastatingly, the blaze also gutted the ranks of local MCC leadership, including a deacon named Mitch Mitchell and a pastor named Bill Larson, whose charred body was left on display in a street-facing window for at least four hours.

Larson had been New Orleans’ only “out” gay public figure at the time of the inferno, in a city where gay leaders still used nicknames or pseudonyms to avoid legal and professional blowback for their private lifestyles. Some local gays took the treatment of Larson’s charred corpse to be a warning from authorities: Stay hidden.

Troy Perry, leading Los Angeles Pride celebrations on Santa Monica State Beach, was alerted to the crisis in New Orleans within minutes by a national telephone network.

Perry sensed what he later described as a “vacuum of gay leadership that needed to be filled.” Perry rallied a bicoastal delegation of MCC ministers and Gay Liberation leaders, including Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) affiliate Morty Manford and Gay Community Services Center of Los Angeles president Morris Kight. They flew to New Orleans the following morning to manage the emergency.

These efforts would represent Gay Liberation’s first nationally coordinated response to a catastrophe. The New Orleans Emergency Task Force, as Morris Kight dubbed their delegation, also organized Gay Liberation’s first national fundraising drive to help the Up Stairs Lounge victims.

Administered by The Advocate, this fund raised some $17,000 (or about $100,000, in modern spending capacity) to help pay for funerals and surgeries.

Manford toured the country spreading word of the arson to gay communities in Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Additionally, the task force coordinated with the American Red Cross to spearhead what was then most successful blood drive in the history of the movement (prior to AIDS, blood drives were a common response to queer crises); gay communities donated enough blood to the “New Orleans Catastrophe” account to provide a “blood bank credit” for several years.

Stunned by the lack of cross-gender solidarity between gays and lesbians following the Up Stairs Lounge catastrophe (for example, no Daughters of Bilitis groups sent checks to the memorial fund), Troy Perry sensed a lingering division between the sexes.

“There is sexism among gay males and lesbians just as there is sexism in the non-gay population,” Perry later wrote in his autobiography Don’t Be Afraid Anymore. “Gay male sexism, an omnipresent issue from the earliest days of the GLF, increasingly became the cause of bitter accusation,” agreed historian Martin Duberman.

Seizing upon the lessons and failures of the New Orleans Emergency Task Force, Perry enacted foundational changes to his MCC fellowship that September.

“Women clergy were not only a rarity in the general population, they were nonexistent in our denomination,” Perry continued. Church bylaws were rewritten for gender-inclusive language, and Reverend Freda Smith, who in 1972 became first female minister in MCC history, was elected to serve on the MCC Board of Elders—the first woman in that church body.

Many historians take the presence of lesbian speakers like Audre Lorde alongside gay speakers like Troy Perry at 1979’s National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights to be a natural expression of the gay movement, forgetting that gay and lesbian communities were isolated a decade earlier.

The two groups only united through concerted acts of outreach like Troy Perry’s reforms within the MCC or Lambda Legal’s protracted search for lesbian lawyers willing to associate with a gay organization that same year.

Yet, as historian Jim Downs writes, “The accounts of gay writers, historians, and scholars have emphasized the sweaty political struggles in the streets in the 1970s, rather than the radical push by gay people of faith.”

How is it that a cofounder of the first Pride parade, a ringleader of Gay Liberation’s first emergency task force, a speaker at the first LGBT+ March on Washington and the officiant of the first public same-sex marriage ceremonies in the U.S. is largely unknown to LGBT+ Americans?

Furthermore, a radical Christian fellowship that played a leading role in establishing what many now call “Pride” through marriage ceremonies, public protests and human rights rallies—which resulted in at least 26 documented instances of arson or fire-bombing between 1973 and 1997 affecting nearly one in ten MCC congregations—has gone under-credited.

“Finally, the GLBT community is waking up and realizing how we important we are to the history of this movement,” Perry insisted in a recent sermon. “We were pregnant with Stonewall!”

Today, the extent to which the MCC and its legacy remains under-appreciated, even to aficionados of LGBT+ culture, speaks to the degree to which an institution that once stood in the vanguard of early Gay Liberation has been sidelined and left out of history books.

“Many of the early chroniclers of gay liberation came from the political left and considered religion patriarchal, hierarchical, and the root of gay oppression,” argued historian Jim Downs in Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation. “GLF and GAA were the ‘liberation struggle,’” countered historian Martin Duberman in Has the Gay Movement Failed?, drawing an exclusionary line that places contemporaneous religious groups outside the fold.

“If GLF or GAA did harbor a few members attracted to a religious faith,” Duberman continued, “they would probably have known better than to announce the fact.”

The anti-religion bias persisted for decades. An MCC of New Orleans minister named Dexter Brecht criticized The Advocate in 1994 for what he called “Christophobia” in their lack of coverage of the MCC’s 25th anniversary. “Get with the true spirit of Pride and celebrate who we are,” Brecht beseeched.

At WorldPride 2019 in New York City, an estimated 150,000 people marched a parade route that streamed past the site of the historic Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street—genuflecting at what is now regarded as an indisputable turning point in modern history.

By contrast, the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches observed its 50th year of ministry this July not with the fanfare of WorldPride/Stonewall 50 but with a private conclave of about 900 ministers and supporters in Orlando. (Although the MCC 50th anniversary formally took place in October 2018, global celebrations were delayed until the church body met in General Conference, which occurs every two to three years.)

Today, the MCC boasts 172 affiliated churches and 46 emerging ministries across 33 countries. More than half of MCC clergy are women, and about one quarter of MCC congregations reside outside the United States.

Returning to his home state of Florida, a state from which he once fled after being expelled by his local ministry for his homosexual “sins,” Troy Perry gave an opening address that recognized his two brothers in the audience. “When God speaks through you for 50 years,” Perry preached, “in front of television cameras, in magazine articles, in books, everywhere for 50 years, I have not changed my testimony.” 

From July 1 through 5, mere miles from the site of the Pulse nightclub shooting, the MCC faithful met to elect new leadership and conduct the 27th General Conference of the world’s largest queer-founded, queer-led Christian denomination.

“The difference between the MCC and any other church is, firstly, it was built by us for us,” intoned MCC Reverend Elder Cecilia Eggleston, who became elevated in Orlando to the role of Moderator, or chief minister of the global congregation—a role defined and held by Troy Perry until he retired in 2005.

Eggleston represents the second female Moderator in MCC history and the first Moderator to hail from outside the United States, reflecting the church’s expanding mission.

Presently, the largest MCC congregation in the world is the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, which from 2001 to 2003 was a litigant in the court battle that ultimately brought about same-sex marriage in Canada.

Similarly, throughout the 2000s, Troy Perry sued the State of California to recognize his own same-sex marriage and, temporarily, won that recognition in May 2008, only to have his victory struck down by the infamous Proposition 8 ballot initiative.

The MCC had, in fact, tied itself so closely to the issue of same-sex marriage, since the first holy union in 1968, that when same-sex marriage became recognized federally in 2015 by the U.S. Supreme Court, some within the ranks wondered if their church had served its purpose.

“There are some folk who say the MCC has done its work well and faithfully, and maybe it’s time for us to go gently into the background,” reflected Eggleston. “That’s just not going to happen,” she continued. “You’ve got this gigantic pushback from all sorts of churches wanting to crush any possibility of someone in the queer community being seen as someone with a spiritual life, someone who possibly could be of interest to God.”

In 2019, for example, the United Methodist Church, the third largest Christian denomination in the world, voted to prohibit the ordination of LGBT+ clergy and the officiation of same-sex marriages.

Similarly, the Evangelical Covenant Church expelled the First Covenant Church of Minneapolis from their denomination for supporting the LGBT+ community, and a Catholic high school in Indianapolis was forced to fire a gay teacher to remain in its local archdiocese.

Globally, Eggleston notes with irony, “religious liberty” movements are on the rise to re-legitimize discrimination through the imposition of certain kinds of religion over others, ignoring the contrary gospel of churches like the MCC or the beliefs of the irreligious.

She feels that these initiatives can only be defeated from within and without Christianity, through coordinated opposition. “Some aren’t old enough to remember,” she says, “but when the Berlin Wall came down, it was torn down from both sides.” 

Eggleston states that her church intends to fight ongoing persecution and expand into regions of greatest need, where queer people are most imperilled.

She cites a sisterhood of transgender women who recently joined the Good Hope MCC after years of living beneath a bridge in Cape Town, South Africa, as an exemplar of the new MCC ministry. “What do we want to be doing in the next 50 years?” she repeatedly asks her flock.

Inundated with future plans, MCC leaders still found time at their 27th General Conference for a bus ride to the site of the Pulse nightclub shooting nearby on S. Orange Avenue. There, they bowed their heads and wept.

“Our people are still being killed,” Eggleston insists. “And they’re being killed because of who they are and how God made them… If someone is being told they are a mistake in God’s eyes, then we matter.” 

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