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‘I wasn’t able to pursue a career I love because of the person I love’

Out & Equal celebrates its 20th anniversary this year; founder and CEO Selisse Berry reflects on two decades of workplace advocacy

‘I wasn’t able to pursue a career I love because of the person I love’
Out & Equal
Out & Equal's CEO Selisse Berry

Almost 4,000 participants from over 30 countries are expected to attend the annual Out & Equal Workplace Summit when it comes to Florida next week (4-7 October).

It’s a significant increase from the first summit, which was attended by 150 curious attendees back in 1999. The event is one of the annual highlights from Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, the non-profit launched 20 years ago to push for LGBT diversity and inclusion in all workplaces.

The organization was founded by Selisse Berry, who has overseen its growth and remains its CEO.

Creating a world in which others feel free to be themselves at work is something that Berry feels passionate about. She has experienced her own setbacks because of her sexuality.

Raised in Oklahoma, before relocating to Dallas, Texas, she worked as a teacher and guidance counselor after college, before deciding to explore a higher calling.

‘I ended up moving to the Bay area [San Francisco] to go to seminary to be a Presbyterian minister. I was unable to get ordained because I’m a lesbian,’ she recounts down the phone to GSN.

She admits to feeling a lot of frustration, ‘that I wasn’t able to pursue a career I love because of the person I love.’

That incident led Berry down a different path: advocating for equality in the workplace.

Out & Equal’s aim is to help organizations to make their workplaces LGBT inclusive, and to help individuals bring their full selves to work. It runs training programs, networking and mentoring events, as well as big gatherings such as the annual summit. It’s also published books on the benefits of being out at work and guides for employers on such topics as how to support transgender staff.

‘The movement has come a long way’

Berry says much has changed in 20 years, with Out & Equal growing from one staff member to 22 today. It now has over 20 regional affiliates around the US and 10 global partners.

‘In the beginning, only 4% of Fortune 500 companies had any policies to protect the LGBT community. Twenty years later, about 95% now recognize how important it is to embrace the LGBT community in terms of recruitment, advancement and professional development. The movement has come a long way.’

However, much work remains.

‘There were no federal laws to protect the LGBT community in the workplace when I started, and 20 years later there’s still not! That hasn’t changed.’

Berry says the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage probably represented the biggest advancement in gay rights in the US over the last two decades.

It’s had a knock-on effect in the workplace. Most big companies have extended spousal benefits to same-sex couples. On the downside, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) thinks a rise in the number of sexual orientation-related complaints it has received may be partly due to a greater number of people choosing to come out at work after getting married.

Although more people may now be coming out a work, many more choose not to do so. A 2014 US study by HRC found that just over half (53%) of the LGBT employees questioned said that there were not out to colleagues.

Does it frustrate Berry that more people still don’t feel able to come out?

‘It inspires me to continue with this work,’ she says emphatically, ‘to create workspaces where people feel comfortable to come out and at the same time to give people the opportunity to feel so proud of who they are and excited about being part of the community that they can’t not come out.’

Several states in the US still lack LGBT employment protections. Globally, LGBT people can still be fired – or worse – because of their sexuality or gender identity. Some employees, Berry points out, have a good reason not to come out.

‘We continue to do the work, company by company, to ensure they have the policies in place to offer opportunity and protection.’

‘The summit is one of those life-changing experiences for many people, especially those who may have been in the closet’

Out & Equal was born in San Francisco but last year opened up an office in Washington DC. Berry relocated to the capitol (along with wife, Cynthia) to oversee the expansion.

She says that being based in Washington DC has allowed her closer contact with Out & Equal’s east coast-based corporate partners, other advocacy organizations, as well a multitude of federal agencies.

‘The State Department, CIA, SBA … a lot of people are coming to the summit and wanting to get resources in order to embed LGBT-friendly policies in their workplace.

‘Often things change when a new administration comes in, and they want to be sure that – regardless of who is in the White House – those polices are already part of the infrastructure.’

As a non-profit 501(c)(3), Out & Equal does not directly lobby politicians. Unlike organizations such as HRC and NGLCC, it is not able to publicly endorse political candidates, either. However, that doesn’t stop Berry having strong personal views on the US’s upcoming Presidential election.

Asked how she views the choice on offer to Americans between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, she’s blunt: it comes down to, ‘a confident, smart, seasoned, change-maker or an egotistical bully, essentially.’

Selisse Berry at the 2015 Out & Equal Workplace Summit

Selisse Berry at the 2015 Out & Equal Workplace Summit

As far as work going forward is concerned, Berry says implementing global change is a priority.

‘Many of the companies we work with are multi-national and there’s still a lot of work to be done around the world. … to roll their policies out globally.

‘Helping companies see the importance of standing up, as they have done in places such as North Carolina and Georgia, where they have been willing to write a letter to the Governor and say, “This is discrimination, it’s not good for business.”

‘It’s important to be having those same kinds of conversations in those parts of the world that still criminalize homosexuality.’

She also knows that change often starts at a personal level: encouraging just one person to come out at work and to be an advocate can have far-reaching results. It’s one of the reasons why she is looking forward to this year’s summit.

Participants at this year’s event will include the CIA Director John Brennan, footballer Abby Wambach, singer and presenter Lance Bass, and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, among many others.

‘The summit is one of those life-changing experiences for many people, especially those who may have been in the closet for all of their careers or for much of their careers. Even if they are just out but not fully out, it gives them a supportive arm and the inspiration to go back to their companies and start the work … to make a change and to make a difference in the workplace.’

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