HOLLYWOOD (KABC) – “I was in the closet and felt alone the whole time,” said 91-year-old Nancy Valverde.
Many consider her to be a local legend. Valverde has a long list of awards, including a Purple Lily Award and other honors including having an intersection in downtown LA named after her.
But it comes after a lifelong fight for equality as a lesbian and after more than two dozen incarcerations at Lincoln Heights Prison.
“(I was detained) because I was dressing up, they said. Because I wore zippered pants. The women’s trousers had a zipper (on the side) or at the back. The women shouldn’t have the zipper in the front.”
But as you’ll learn, Valverde is anything but a rule follower.
In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, masking laws were used to target the LGBTQ+ cross-dressing community.
“The goal was to oppress the queer community to prevent them from dressing or appearing to be a gender that they are not,” explained Marisol Sanchez, deputy director of housing at the Los Angeles LGBT Center .
Valverde was born in New Mexico in 1932 and moved to Los Angeles with her family when she was about nine years old.
“We took the tram there and went to Clover Street. I grew up there in Lincoln Heights on Clover Street.”
She took on the task of raising herself. At 14, she started working as a driver for a Mexican bakery, earning $10 a week.
Valverde continued: “The bakers were illegal. Here from Mexico. And immigration officials were very hard on Mexican Americans back then. That’s why they were afraid to go out.”
She says she also knew from a young age that she was interested in girls.
“And then a boy came up and said, ‘Can I hold your hand?’ and I would say… it’s stupid, you know? I didn’t fit in.
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The way she dressed was a problem for law enforcement for years.
Valverde says she never stopped dressing the way she wanted and found community in “The Run,” a neighborhood of queer-friendly eateries that stretched across downtown Los Angeles from Pershing Square in the 1940s to 1960s extended to Main Street. It was a time when homosexuality was still criminalized.
“We used to hang out at the bars. They were the only place where we were treated well.”
Another safe haven? Cooper Donuts in downtown LA.
“Where I was tolerated, I didn’t feel comfortable. But when you are accepted, you immediately feel the difference. And Cooper Donuts was one of those places.”
Valverde built one of these places himself. After training to be a hairdresser and working where she was paid less than her male colleagues, she opened her own shop around the corner called Nancy’s Barbershop.
It was a place where young people could talk freely about their sexuality. They knew Valverde had their backs.
“I can never say ‘no’ to the community – no matter what they have asked for. If I can do it, I will do it. Because I know when I needed help. I had help.”
Years later, Valverde was recognized for her commitment. In June, the intersection of Main Street and 2nd Street was renamed Cooper Donuts/Nancy Valverde Square.
There was also a public apology from the Los Angeles Police Department.
Commander Ruby Flores of the LAPD read a statement at the plaza’s dedication: “…this mistreatment and harassment of our citizens was wrong. It should never have happened.”
And a personal apology to Valverde via cell phone from LAPD Police Chief Michel Moore.