The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History recently received personal artifacts and records from the Rev. Troy Perry and the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) for its archives. After discussions with Museum officials over the course of several months Perry chose more than a dozen items to be preserved in the museum’s archives. These items include a Book of Common Prayer that Perry used to lead worship at the first MCC worship gathering and many other services, weddings and funerals over the decades. Perry also donated a book of sermons that he wrote out by hand. The artifacts were symbolically donated to the Museum at a special worship gathering at MCC Washington D.C. on Sunday, October 6, 2019.
Three-dimensional objects—like the prayer book and a set of Perry’s vestments—will be housed in a special section of the Museum. The papers and photographs will become part of the LGBT Collection (1915-2019) #1146, which contains over 57 cubic feet (172 boxes) of material related to the national LGBT community spanning 1915 to the current time. Museum Archivist Franklin Robinson noted that the LGBT Collection includes older records that were received when there was little awareness of queer history, but that the Archives Center has been actively encouraging donations from LGBT history since the early 2000s. Robinson further observed that the Perry and MCC artifacts will add a spiritual dimension to their LGBT Collection.
The impetus for this historic donation can be traced back to mid-2018 and preparations for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of MCC. MCC staff Lauren Bennett wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution’s general mailing address in which she recounted some of MCC’s history and suggested that they should include MCC in their archives. Bennett received no reply to her letter for months as it wound its way through the Smithsonian bureaucracy, eventually going to one of its 15 bureaus—the National Museum of American History. There it ended up on the desk of Katherine Ott, curator for the Science and Medicine Division, who gave Bennett a call in February 2019. Ott subsequently wrote to Perry and MCC Los Angeles inviting them to communicate with her about making a donation of artifacts and records to the Museum.
Ott indicated that the Museum is about “telling stories” about American history. So they are not seeking comprehensive sets of records, instead they seek representative objects that will illumine and help tell stories. Rev. Perry and MCC were invited to donate artifacts and records that would tell the MCC story as part of the spiritual journeys of LGBTQ persons in the U.S.
Perry was asked to identify key elements of his life and the ministry of MCC and then propose one or two artifacts to illustrate each of these. Perry thought first of his family that nurtured him which is represented by a photo album that covers Perry’s early life through many years of MCC. To represent the founding of MCC, Perry donated the prayer book and book of sermons noted above. Recalling the persecution MCC faced in its early years, a hymnbook that survived the January 1973 fire at MCC Los Angeles as well as a commemorative plaque containing a fragment of stained glass from that fire are included in the donation.
Museum curator Ott suggested that MCC’s prison and AIDS ministries were key arenas that would interconnect with general LGBT and American histories. So MCC’s prison ministry handbook, a list of all of the MCC clergy who died of AIDS, and a copy of the sermon, “Do You Believe in Fairies,” that clergy- AIDS activist Steve Pieters preached in over 100 congregations were included in the collection.
Some of the other artifacts and records that were donated to the Museum include:
- The charter of MCC San Francisco describing the rights of membership;
- General Conference program books from the 25th, 40th, 50th years that provide information about MCC’s development;
- An inclusive language hymnal from 1990;
- The original pamphlet “Homosexuality: Not a Sickness, Not a Sin” explained MCC’s belief about sexuality and spirituality. Over 100,000 copies were printed & distributed;
- An original copy of a 1971 issue of Life magazine with a photo of Rev. Perry marrying a couple at MCC Los Angeles; and
- An original copy of the Service of Faith and Freedom to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Stonewall at Alice Tully Hall in New York City.
In considering what these particular artifacts and records bring to the Museum’s archives, Ott offered, “Religion and spiritual practices are the underpinning of some of the most profound and enduring needs in American history. In the case of the MCC and Rev. Troy Perry, history is filled with struggle, community building, song, and probably every human emotion. Because the materials he has donated were present at marriages and funerals, moments of despair, and through many seasons of LGBTQ+ change, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will be able to tell those stories through them.”
On the day following the October 6th worship gathering to celebrate MCC’s donation, Museum officials gave Rev. Perry and some of friends and colleagues a private tour of the Museum’s archives. Reflecting on all that has happened, Rev. Perry said, “When people ask me how I felt knowing that the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History has a collection from our church and from me that someday they might be displaying, I just feel surreal! I give thanks to God that I have lived to see our church honored this way and knowing that this will help Americans understand that the LGBTQ community was as spiritual as any other segment of the American public.”
The Perry-MCC artifacts and records will be preserved permanently in the Museum’s archives. Some items may be loaned out to other galleries for short-term display. They may be part of a future special exhibit that could travel around the country. The LGBT Collection, as well as all other collections in the Archives Center, are open to researchers by appointment during regular business hours. The bulk of MCC’s historical records are preserved at the Center for LGBTQ & Gender Studies in Religion (CLGS) in Berkeley, California, and the ONE Institute in Los Angeles.
Photo credits: David King/dbking