Selisse Berry was born in 1956 and grew up in a progressive Presbyterian church in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Her father taught high school and later became a director for statewide vocational education, giving conferences throughout the state. Although growing up in a conservative area, Selisse went to a church that encouraged its members to be socially aware and also emphasized social justice. She was involved with the church at an early age, including as a leader of the Presbyterian church’s senior high fellowship at her school. It was also in high school that she became drawn to more evangelical forms of Christianity. She became involved with the organization Young Life, and continued to attend evangelical churches throughout college. It was with the students in Young Life that she heard negative remarks about LGBT people, since the topic was not addressed at her Presbyterian church.
Selisse left small-town Oklahoma to enroll at University of North Texas outside of Dallas. She received her degree in both education and guidance counseling in 1979 and began working as a counselor for children with emotional disturbance issues at a wilderness camp for two years. She also began a graduate education program at the University of Texas in special education, completing her degree there in 1981.
She worked as both a guidance and therapeutic counselor as well as a teacher for the next several years. Although she enjoyed her work as a teacher and counselor, she felt called to something that was working towards social justice. Where she lived, the majority of social justice work happened through the church. Although she had felt called to be involved in church earlier, she felt that she had come to a point where she had to decide to follow her heart. Unfortunately, the church that she was currently attending did not allow for women to be ordained ministers. She found herself gravitating back to her Presbyterian tradition and in 1987 decided to go to seminary at the San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS).
Moving to California proved to be a big change from growing up in the South. Selisse saw her time at seminary as an eye-opening experience She enjoyed learning about the history of the Bible. At the same time, she also came into contact with feminist and other progressive theologies for the first time. It was also the first time that she began to have an awareness and language about her own sexual orientation. Although she had known for at least some amount of her adult life that she had crushes on women, it was in California that she started to attend a bisexual support group. She also began dating another woman who was a classmate at SFTS. The Presbyterian Church didn't allow for gay and lesbian people to become ordained however, so Selisse was forced to keep this relationship at least somewhat covert in hopes of not being reprimanded or even expelled from the school.
It was at an internship in Boston during her seminary years that she found her voice as an bisexual (and later, lesbian) woman. She was able not only to date women openly for the first time, but also had the theological and intellectual support of meeting lesbian theologians like Carter Heyward. Even after her experience in Boston, it would take years for her to get over both her fear and also her own internalized homophobia. Upon returning to San Francisco, she became more involved at Starr King and Pacific School of Religion, including founding the group Seminary Lesbians Under Theological Stress. Since she came out, she was unable to become ordained in the Presbyterian Church. Selisse looked into become a Unitarian Universalist minister, but going through the process over again was simply not financially feasible. After graduating from SFTS in 1991, she decided that it would be best to go into non-profit work.
Selisse moved to a house with other lesbian women in San Francisco and found two jobs in the non-profit sector to work in. The first was as the National Coordinator for the group Christian Lesbians Out Together (also known as CLOUT), which had an office at MCC San Francisco. She also worked as the Director of the North California Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. She also worked at a women's clinic in San Francisco.
After a couple of years Selisse began to feel more called to the wider LGBT non-profit space. She learned about the Building Bridges program that was at the Pacific Center in Berkeley. It had been founded by a mentor of hers, Jane Spahr, whom she had met during her time at seminary. In 1996, Selisse was hired as the Director of the program. She saw the program as holding great potential for not only changing the diversity of non-profits, but also for the diversity within companies and corporations. She began to invite other people into conversations about the way in which Building Bridges could expand its reach. The program became a part of the United Way, which was a major step in putting their message forward. Selisse was also in dialogue with leaders of other non-profit programs, and over the next two years identified three other programs to combine with Building Bridges. With Selisse as the executive director they combined to form the Pride Collaborative, which would go on to be renamed Out and Equal Workplace Advocates in 1999. The group also began to hold conferences about workplace equality. In 2004, Out and Equal separated from the United Way to become its own independent non-profit organization.
Out and Equal grew dramatically over the next decade. From the first conference in 1999 with 200 people attending, it has grown to a conference of more than 2,700 people, with an international workplace conference planned in 2012. Beginning with one staff person 2001, the staff of Out and Equal is now at 20 people with Selisse continuing as executive director. Although not working necessarily in the religious milieu, Selisse sees her work as a way in which she can affect people's feelings about LGBT people at an individual level. Selisse married her wife Cynthia in 2007, with the legal marriage occurring in 2008.
(This biographical statement written by Joel Layton with information provided by Selisse Berry.)
Biography Date: August, 2012
Presbyterian Church (USA) | Spahr, Jane Adams | CLOUT (Christian Lesbians OUT) | Women and Religion
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