By Helen McDonald
“In elementary school, I had ringworm and it was super taboo,” recollects Dr. Wilhelmina Perry, Harlem native and Administrative Coordinator of advocacy group LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent. “It was like having tuberculosis — it was socially ostracizing. My aunt came to my house and told my mother that I must be paying the price for a sin.” At the time, the 79-year-old attributed the “sin” to a sexual relationship she had with a girl and prayed to God that He would not punish her.
Although Dr. Perry had same-gender attractions throughout her life, her journey to self-acceptance did not begin at an early age. Even though she realized later on in her adulthood that she had been having romantic relationships with girls and young adults since elementary school, Dr. Perry did not identify with any LGBTQ communities. Analyzing her “coming out” process, Dr. Perry explains, “I guess I had pushed [my attraction] away because I had not classified it. I got married and did things that girls were expected to do. I just had never thought to put [my attraction] in any terms. It just had happened and continued up until college.”
It was not until Dr. Perry met her late partner, Toni, that she would come into her sexuality. Perry met her partner at the age of 40, when Perry was teaching at a university. The pair remained together 30 years before Toni died. Aside from enabling Perry to recognize her same-gender attractions, Toni impacted Perry’s life immeasurably. Perry reflects that her late partner was raised to be a community organizer and had a strong commitment to social justice.
After Perry’s late partner’s death, she became suicidal and prayed one day to the Lord that if He wanted her to remain here in the world, He must give her a purpose. She heard a voice that said, “If you loved [your partner] so much that you would give your life, you must go and speak on behalf of people who are same-gender loving.”
Dr. Perry brought this spiritual call to arms to Riverside Church. She had left the Church, generally speaking, in her early 20s and had not seriously participated in any institutional religious activities. After her talk with God, she decided to join the Riverside Church congregation for its service on Pride Sunday. Following the service everyone came up to the altar and were blessed, called martyrs, and left in union. She vowed to herself that the next Pride, she would be up in front at church and blessed.
Through Riverside Church, Perry got together with people of color to start a project for LGBT people of faith, but it ended up being an Afrocentric group. The collective discussed fully if they should move forward as a Black group and decided yes. This group that Perry founded ultimately would blossom into the LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent, where people from different Christian faiths — no one else from non-Christian faith traditions are included at this point though they would like members of other non-Christian traditions present in the future — meet in different churches or public spaces. Various Christian denominations are represented through this group and the coalition functions as a nomadic ministry of the church, with a minimal funds consensus model.
It is clear that Dr. Perry’s role in life ministry is to see herself as an educator and mentor to people, including gender non-conforming youth.
“I know I have the skills — I know how to work with people,” she explains. “My focus is on developing skills in other people. Whatever I have been able to do is not known to the world, but it’s recognized. I don’t always need to be pushing myself in front of other people or boasting about my accomplishments,” Dr. Perry admits with genuine humility.
She feels a responsibility in her communities to do good. Although Perry may not have always embraced her queerness, she has no shame about who she is now. She proudly speaks her truth, proclaiming: “I’m 79 and I’m gonna be 80 in December so I’m pretty comfortable with who I am. I can claim who I am. [That] doesn’t mean I don’t have periods of doubt or of craziness; it just means that basically I know who I am and that over those years I have a history that allows me to say that this is Wilhelmina Perry and this is what she’s capable of doing and what she cannot do. I learned that and it’s very comforting.”
To her younger self, Dr. Perry offers the gift of trust. “Trust yourself more. Don’t be willing to try to fit into what you think people want you to be. I think I missed out on a lot of time of being able to define me and take a stance. I think it’s two values: (1) Be a more active participant in your life as soon as you can; (2) Don’t let people define you. Affirm who you are.”
Dr. Perry offers the same advice — with a slight twist — to LGBTQ youth who may struggle with family acceptance. She gently assures, “You have worth and despite the fact that your parent may have made a determination about you or what they think of you, you do have value and you do have a right to live as you want to live.” With a smile in her voice, Dr. Perry affirms, “You just have a different path from the one they wanted you to live.”
Helen McDonald is a 20-something college student living off of bad cooking, social justice and a lil snark. She also discusses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on her personal blog revolutionaryrainbows.tumblr.com.