Wilhelmina Perry, 82, started LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent in 2010. The non-profit works to reduce homophobia in the Christian black community, helps ministers learn how to reach LGBT African Americans, and provides a judgment-free haven for homeless gay youth of color.
As for Perry's own youth, she grew up in Harlem, which she remembers as a "good, solid neighborhood." At her segregated elementary school, teachers imparted a sense of pride in black culture. Her father, a church deacon and union leader, also instilled "a very strong racial consciousness." As a kid, she often saw Malcolm X and his followers on her street corner, and her brother joined X's movement. Meanwhile, Perry went to college, got a Ph.D., and became a social worker, then a professor of social work.
Though she had always been attracted to women, Perry married and divorced two men before identifying as a lesbian. While teaching at San Diego State University, she fell in love with a fellow faculty member, Antonia Pantoja, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her activism on behalf of Latino civil rights. "Ours was really a love story," Perry says of their 30-year partnership. (When Perry introduced Pantoja to her father, he said, "You finally found your equal.")
After Pantoja died in 2002, Perry felt lost and found herself contemplating suicide. Then, after a 50-year absence, she stepped back into a church. "It saved my life," she says. She also went to an LGBT grief support group, where she saw up close the pain and unfairness of losing a life partner without legal binding. She asked the others permission to tell their stories in public. They agreed, and "it just hit, spread like wildfire," spurring her to launch LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent.
Perry's proactive work in the intersection of gayness, religiousness, and blackness won her an Encore Purpose Prize fellowship, a competitive award for seniors. She credits her spryness to six decades of vegetarianism, spending time with young people, and adhering to Pantoja's best-known quote: "One cannot live a lukewarm life. You have to live life with passion."
Explore the complete list of visionaries making change after 80 here.