+
(photo)

Dr. Wilhelmina Perry

Biography

Dr. WIlhelmina Perry observed: “Most people I know see me as an LGBT activist. They don’t know I had a very productive life prior to being an activist.” Highly productive puts it mildly. Dr. Perry has led an extraordinary life centered around justice, community, and love. 

Wilhelmina Perry grew up in a house with a Pentecostal mother and a father who was a deacon and treasurer of the New Covenant Baptist Church in New York City. Her father sounds like an equally extraordinary person, who gave Dr. Perry her earliest lessons about community life. “ He was extremely active in all aspects of community life and very much so in his church. He blended and presented to us a model and a tradition of church in community. Church belongs in the community with the people.” Rather than insist that his children have a dogmatic approach to religion and God, he fostered in them a strong sense of what was owed to their communities, people outside those communities, and the world. He taught: “You have a responsibility to your community. You have a responsibility to other human people. You have a responsibility to live your life in such a way as to make the world a better world.”

Perry took those responsibilities to heart. After obtaining a degree in social work, she decided that the best use of her considerable talent was to work not as a clinical social worker, but as one embedded in the community. After working as a part of the New York Housing Authority and moving families and the elderly out of neighborhoods so developers could move in, she realized that she was working against her values. 

“My agency was re-placing people with the promise that they would be able to return once housing was now built on what had become vacant land. I saw that was not happening, and I politically could not accept that.” 

She moved to the Community Health Center as the Head of Community and Social services, where she launched a maternal and baby health program, trained individuals on how to do community assessments, and used art exhibitions to bring attention to what was meant by phrases like “inadequate housing.” 

Dr. Perry divides her life into “at least” two phases. “Before Toni” and “After Toni.” 

Dr. Perry met Antonia Pantoja in 1972 while Dr. Perry was teaching at the California State University School of Social Work. The two met through their joint activism and remained life partners and social activists for 30 years. One of their most fruitful collaborations was their community development work in Puerto Rico. Dr. Perry laughs at the recollection. “We were supposed to be retiring.” 

Instead the pair helped found Producir Inc. in 1986. The community is thriving and still providing services including a Business Incubator and Housing programs today. At its founding, it was “the apex of what we had always been teaching.” What would become a powerhouse community development organization, Producir started as a small village. Dr. Perry and Toni helped turn it into a thriving commercial center. 

“We created a co-op, and a credit union. We helped people start businesses. We helped farmers develop hydroponics. We formed a high school to college career program. We set up health education for regular blood pressure screenings.” (There was no doctor for 10,000 people.) 

After 13 years of living their values among the people living and working at Producir, Dr. Perry and Toni returned back to the United States. Two years after their return, Toni received a cancer diagnosis. The doctors gave her four months. She lived for three. 

After Toni’s death, Wilhelmina fell into a deep depression. “We shared social values. We shared commitment to community, dedication to community life and community. When she died, I found myself depressed and suicidal. Something said to me, if you love this woman so much, how can your death and your suicide benefit you or her or the society that you worked so hard to change in any way? You've got to find another way.” 

Dr. Perry found the Riverside Church and started another chapter in her life–this time as a LGBTQIA+ advocate. Toni’s death changed another thing for her. “When she died and I received this message of what my life was to be, I pronounced, I'm a lesbian. Everything I’ve done since 2002 has been as an open and out lesbian.” 

Dr. Perry began this new phase of her life with her customary energy and drive. Learning that the majority of homeless youth are LGBTQIA and from BIPOC communities, she co-founded the Interfaith Task force for Homeless LGBT Youth. The Task Force founded three shelters for homeless LGBTQIA+ youth in local churches. 

Dr. Perry was foundational in the creation of the LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent in 2011 to help secure protections for LGBTQIA+ youth in their houses of worship. She served as a member of the organization from 2011 to 2017, and has recently un-retired to “activate the board. 

“We had a mission. We were going to take the profile of what was happening to these kids to the black community. We were going to fight for, advocate for, and educate to make sure that black LGBT people were being included, accepted, and acknowledged as people of faith.” 

The group used a successful public transit marketing campaign, art exhibitions, book readings, workshops, and lectures to help educate the Black communities they served about the problem of black homeless LGBTQIA+ youth. 

As an LGBTQIA+ elder, Dr. Perry was unable to marry Pantoja before her death in 2002 (the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision was made in June, 2015). She is a passionate advocate for survivor benefits for gay and lesbian couples who lost a partner before the legal right to marriage was passed. 

It is difficult to sum up the life of someone like Dr. Perry, perhaps it is best to let her own words stand for her. “I’m called a radical and that’s okay with me. I am a radical person of faith.” The world could use more radicals like her.

(This biographical statement written by Kelly Prosen for a Queer & Trans Theologies class at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities from an interview with Wilhelmina Perry and was approved by Dr. Perry.)

Biography Date: December 2023

Tags

Riverside Church (NYC) | Black | Racism | New York City | New York | Activist (religious institutions)

Citation

“Dr. Wilhelmina Perry | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed May 30, 2024, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/wilhelmina-perry.

Remembrances

Know Wilhelmina Perry? Tell us your experience.
(All entries are reviewed by the LGBT-RAN office before posting.)