By Victoria Anderson, Activist and LGBTQIA Spiritual Content Creator
Dr. Wilhelmina Perry is one of eight children, a daughter of Harlem. Her hardworking, union-organizing parents raised her with a progressive spirituality that asked and answered the question: what does your religion teach you about your social responsibility? And how do we develop community based on the principles of loving-kindness? These fundamental spiritual values taught her that you have a responsibility to other people; you belong to other people. That has been the root of Dr. Perry's advocacy work.
When she learned the majority of homeless youth are LGBTQIA and Black/Latino, she realized the problem of home insecurity was sexuality rejection based on religious discrimination. With two lesbian women, she embarked on the Interfaith Task Force for Homeless LGBT Youth project, educating church communities with statistics and first hand experiences, and then asking them to participate as a temporary shelter matching them with homeless LGBTQIA youth. She said to herself, if they know, they'll do better. Not to mention the churches wouldn't have any expenses, all that was asked was for parishioners to be responsible for making the meals for the youth.
She remembers seeing her afro-growing, dashiki wearing, deacon father helping small black business owners open storefronts in their church, transforming the building into a self-sustaining structure. She hoped that this project would yield similar results. Working with the seven churches that agreed to participate, the Interfaith Task Force loaded their station wagon with supplies including food, linens and folding beds and began connecting homeless youth with the churches.
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A few of the churches stepped up to become permanent shelters, one focusing only on transgender people and another expanding the program to incorporate case plans ensuring that Black and Brown young people were moving through a series of steps for success once they leave the system.
Giving black and brown youth an opportunity to get out of the overcrowded shelter system is only one example of Dr. Perry's continued commitment to community, which at the age of 87, is an example to us all.
Dr. Perry's work does unto others as you would have others do to you. She is the keeper of her brother, sister and gender non-conforming siblings. When your life is lived as an example of the golden rule, it is only right that you should.
I am humbled to receive this award for my activism. Thank you. Congratulation to the other awardees.
For me, this award is an endorsement to continue with my work. The work that I do is based on my social values and my position as a Black lesbian and as a person of faith. I grew up in a home with my dad who was a deacon in his church, community activist and a strong union leader.
I come to my work through examples from both my parents. Before becoming an LGBT activist, I had worked for many years around the United States and in Puerto Rico with community leaders to teach them how to become more effective community organizers and actors for change.
In 2002 following the death of my partner of 30 years, I turned to work in the LGBTQIA+ community . My personal experience as a survivor of a same sex relationship turned me into an activist in this new field of work. My activism was not only helping others, but it was helping me to create a new life without her.
I started as a marriage equality activist, bringing to the public my story as a Black lesbian survivor and the stories of others who were also senior survivors. I wanted to bring attention to the consequences of living without legal protections. Legal marriage was not available at that time.
Since this time, I have worked to bring attention to the needs of homeless LGBT youth, the majority being Black and Latino youth. My work as the Founder Emeritus of LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent focused on highlighting the consequences of homophobia and religious trauma because of punitive and shaming religious teachings. The organization did this through public education campaigns, programs, attendance at public events, telling our stories, newspaper articles and television interviews.
Through this work, our organization engaged more LGBT people of faith into policy making, advocacy and service roles. Today, high on my agenda, are advocacy and policy work in the LGBTQIA+ community.
Thank you again for the Lemlich Award.
Dr. Wilhelmina Perry was born and educated in Harlem where her parents were strong community and labor leaders. She was raised in Refuge Temple Church, and these values have guided her throughout her life. Her elementary school, P.S. 24, was headed by the first Black principal, Mrs. Gertrude Ayers. From Julia Richman High School she went on to Brooklyn College, where she was among the first students to integrate the CUNY system. She began her professional work at the New York City Welfare Department working in East Harlem. After several years, she moved to the New York City Housing Authority as a Housing Assistant in Mill Bank Houses in the Bronx, NY. She ended her career as a city employee under the leadership of Mr. Madison Jones in NYCHA's Inter-group Relation Division.
She left New York to attend the University of Pennsylvania where she completed a Master's in Social Work. She would go on to complete a doctorate degree in human behavior and leadership.
She worked for several years as a foster care worker in a small organization in Philadelphia, going on to the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and the Germantown Community Health Center, holding pioneer administrative positions in both locations.
Her professional history continued with a family move to San Diego California where she completed a doctorate in Human Behavior and Leadership. She was appointed faculty at the California State University, School of Social Work. With her partner, Dr. Antonia Pantoja, she was co-founder of the Graduate School for Community Development, an alternative educational institution teaching community leadership and economic development in communities across the United States. She worked in community development, leadership development and community art programs with diverse urban and rural communities around the United States. She was co-founder of Producir, a comprehensive community development not for profit corporation in rural Puerto Rico. She is the former supervisor of an AmeriCorp program in Cubuy, Canovanas, Puerto Rico. Producir established local residents' businesses, community urban market, hydroponic training and business development for local farmers, a shopping complex, programs for high school students entering college, and supported a local Head Start Program.
In 2000, she returned to New York City and became a member of The Riverside Church and shortly thereafter would become the convener of Maranatha, the LGBT ministry. Dr. Perry was a co-founder and Vice President of the Interfaith Task Force for Homeless LGBT Youth. Under the work of the Task Force, three shelters for homeless gay youth were opened in local churches.
Dr. Perry has been an advocate for LGBT same-gender loving people as well as for marriage equality. She held the position of convener of the Round Table People of Color under Empire State Pride Agenda. In 2010, this group reformed itself as an independent organization and would become the LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent. This organization worked with clergy, lay leaders and congregation to secure protections and inclusion for LGBT people in houses of worship. Dr. Perry has served as Administrative Coordinator and is now Founder Emeritus.
She has been a co-founder of The Circle of Life Celebration, a memorial service for Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who have died and the New York City Black and Latino Equality Coalition, an organization of Black and Latino lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people formed to promote the interests of Black and Latino LGBT organizations.
Dr. Perry was honored in 2013 with an award from Harlem Pride. She has received recognition from Empire State Pride Agenda and GLAAD. She became a Purpose Prize Fellow in 2014 and also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from LGBT Kwanzaa Community of NYC. In 2017, she received a recognition from Community Board 10. In 2017, she received an award from Mid Manhattan NAACP in honor of LGBT Pride, and also the Legacy Award from Griot Circle. She has received recognition from many organizations, houses of worship and community groups.
She has contributed many articles on LGBT youth, same-gender families, coming out, clergy and attitudes towards LGBT people and President Obama's support of marriage equality. These articles have appeared in Caribbean Life, The Daily News, The Amsterdam News, Huffington Post and The Positive Community. Dr. Perry has provided services to many LGBT Black and Latino organizations and remains active in her position of mentoring to gay young adults. Dr. Perry is a proud and active senior of 86 years of age.