Lesbian activist Nancy Valverde looks back on her lifelong fight for equal rights

"I was in the closet, and I felt alone all the time," stated the 91-year-old

Sophie Flay Image
Wednesday, October 18, 2023
Activist Nancy Valverde looks back on her fight for equal rights
Many consider Valverde to be a local legend, with a long list of accolades including a Purple Lily Award and other honors, including a downtown LA intersection named after her.

HOLLYWOOD (KABC) -- "I was in the closet, and I felt alone all the time," said 91-year-old Nancy Valverde.

Many consider her to be a local legend. Valverde has a long list of accolades including a Purple Lily Award and other honors, including a downtown LA intersection named after her.

But it comes after a lifelong fight for equal rights as a lesbian, and getting locked up in the Lincoln Heights jail more than two dozen times.

"(I was jailed) for masquerading, they said. For wearing pants with a zipper. The ladies' pants had the zipper (on the side) or in the back. The women were not supposed to have the zipper in the front."

But as you'll learn, Valverde is anything but a rule follower.

Masquerading laws were used to target the LGBTQ+ cross-dressing community in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

"The goal was to suppress the queer community to avoid them dressing or appearing like the gender that they're not," stated Marisol Sanchez, Associate Director of Housing at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

Valverde was born in New Mexico in 1932, moving to Los Angeles with her family when she was about nine years old.

"We got the streetcar there and we went all the way down to Clover Street. I was raised there in Lincoln Heights on Clover Street."

She took on the role of raising herself. By the age of 14 she started working as a driver for a Mexican baker making $10 a week.

Valverde continued, "The bakers were illegal. Here from Mexico. And the immigration (officers) were really hard on the Mexican Americans at that time. So, they were afraid to go out."

She says she also knew at a young age that she was interested in girls.

"And then some boy would come and say, 'Can I hold your hand?' and I'd be like...it's stupid, you know? I didn't fit in."

LAPD issues apology to LGBTQ+ community during ceremony honoring activists

The way she dressed continued to be an issue for law enforcement for years.

Valverde says she never stopped dressing the way she wanted, finding community in "The Run," a district of queer-friendly establishments that spanned downtown Los Angeles from Pershing Square to Main Street in the 1940s thru the 1960s. It was a time when homosexuality was still criminalized.

"We used to hang at the bars. They were the only place we were treated well."

Another safe haven? Cooper Do-nuts in downtown LA.

"I didn't feel comfortable where I was tolerated. But when you're accepted, you can feel the difference right away. And Cooper Do-nuts was one of those places."

Valverde went on to build one of those places herself. After training to become a barber and working where she was paid less than her male counterparts, she opened her own shop around the corner called Nancy's Barbershop.

It was a place where young people could speak freely about their sexuality. They knew Valverde had their back.

"I can never say 'no' to the community - anything they asked for. If I can do it, I'll do it. Because I know when I needed help. I had help."

Years later, Valverde has been recognized for her activism. In June, the intersection of Main and 2nd Streets was renamed Cooper Do-nuts / Nancy Valverde Square.

It also came with a public apology from the Los Angeles Police Department.

Commander Ruby Flores of the LAPD read a statement when the square was dedicated: "...this mistreatment and harassment of our citizens was wrong. It should have never happened."

And a personal apology to Valverde via mobile phone from LAPD Police Chief Michel Moore.