Kris Perry: Standing for equality

Merrill '86, sociology and psychology

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Kris Perry never intended to become a civil rights icon.

As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, she explored the themes of social justice that would shape her career as an advocate for children.

After more than two decades of behind-the-scenes work, Perry stepped into the national spotlight in 2009 as the lead plaintiff in the historic legal challenge that overturned California's ban on gay marriage. Perry says she was simply doing what was right and advocating for her family when she joined the case that took marriage equality all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Perry's life story could have been a case study in one of the classes she took as an undergraduate. More than 30 years later, she still raves about her professors and their ability to link the personal to the political.

"I woke up politically at Santa Cruz," she says. She discovered feminism—and her sexual orientation. She came out, and she began to explore gender equality and civil rights.  

Perry began her career as a child-abuse investigator and spent nearly 25 years as a social worker and director of social service programs. In 2005, she was named executive director of First 5 California. Seven years later, she moved to Washington, D.C., as executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a national bipartisan advocacy group that supports the education and care needs of low-income children from birth through age 5.

Last May, she and her wife, Sandy Stier, published their memoir, Love on Trial: Our Supreme Court Fight for the Right to Marry.

Then in June, they celebrated the graduation of their son, Elliott (Rachel Carson ‘17, environmental studies), who followed in his mom’s footsteps and became a Slug.