If I were to fill out the Proust Questionnaire and be asked who I most admire, without hesitation I would say David Selberg, the executive director of Pacific Pride Foundation.
Pacific Pride’s mission statement is “to advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community; care for people living with HIV; and prevent the transmission of HIV.” But that doesn’t cover all of the amazing programming that David works so passionately to make happen in Santa Barbara.
His non-profit organization provides youth services (including a prom), a speakers bureau to educate the public, a lending library, a film festival, and a food pantry for low-income folks. They also hold numerous gatherings throughout the year, including the ever-popular Pacific Pride Festival.
A gentle giant at 6 foot 5, David is one of the friendliest and most eloquent Santa Barbararians. This coming Saturday, Pacific Pride’s biggest fundraiser, the legendary Royal Ball, will take place at the Bacara Resort, followed by Gospel Brunch on Sunday.
David took time away from making Santa Barbara a better place to answer the Proust Questionnaire.
What do you like most about your job?
The really tangible impact we have on people’s lives. I absolutely love it!
We get kids showing-up to our LGBTQ youth groups in both Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, who “come out” to their parents at home as lesbian, gay, bi, or transgender, and they literally get thrown out. These young people are in high school! We find them housing, support services, and help them stay in school.
One high school girl was grounded by her parents to her bedroom after school everyday and on weekends for ‘coming-out’ as lesbian. Now we have the family in therapy learning to accept and support the youth.
Another recent situation was an 85-year-old woman crying with me on the phone because no one would sit with her in the dining room for meals at her residential facility because a staff member had “outed” her against her wishes. We now train senior facility staff about respecting and supporting our frail LGBT elderly.
We help hundreds of people who have HIV and AIDS right here in our county, with getting to a doctor, making their rent, taking their medications. So many people in our community don’t think they know anyone with HIV. They do, they just don’t know it! It’s not like it was when I started doing this work 20 years ago where gay men with the disease were treated like they had the plague and died quickly, visibly and painfully. Now its college students, moms with kids, the people that serve you routinely during your day.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
For the past 13 years, I have been a Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteer with the same child, who is now 19 years old. I have followed him on his journey through group homes and institutions throughout California, always keeping track of him and seeing him all the time. So many professionals in the system said he would end up in a criminal environment, but as I celebrate his 19th birthday with he and his girlfriend, and take him to get work boots for his new job, I can see what a fine young man he has become. He is truly living a great life, and he tells me I was a defining part of making that happen. It humbles me and makes me cry.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Harvey Milk’s message really resonated with me. I feel like I am also part of leading a community that is out and proud and equal. He once said something like, “If everyone who is gay or has a gay person in his or her life would come out, the issue would be done.” It feels as if the most important part of the LGBT civil rights movement is for us to have a voice, and to not remain invisible. That is one of the primary things Pacific Pride does for people — we support them in feeling comfortable in who they are.
On what occasion do you lie?
During the early years of the AIDS epidemic when there were oppressive laws against HIV-positive people, let me just say, lying was the higher ethical standard. We supported and protected our clients as much as we could, and that sometimes meant lying to the government, relatives, or employers to maintain housing, employment, family support, citizenship, and much more. That’s all I’ll say about that!
What is your greatest fear?
I grew up afraid of everything! In my childhood the world was a very scary place. Now, as I move through my early 50s, I have let go of many of my fears. Today my greatest fear is spiders! No, seriously.
I worked at Pacific Pride for 10 years during the 1990s as a frontline HIV/AIDS worker and then I quit to do homelessness work with another great organization for awhile. I recall hearing about Pacific Pride struggling to survive, even closing possibly, and I felt so deeply sad and afraid about that because I thought how so many would have no safe harbor to go to with life or death needs. So I think my greatest fear is when something of great value to many… ends. It’s hard to reconcile.
Who do you most admire and why?
Career-wise I really admire Lorri Jean who runs the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, biggest one in the world. She has always been a mentor to me because she articulates better than anyone I know the value of LGBT centers, and how relevant they are. And, she is always available with guidance and support when I feel stuck or unsure in my role. She will sit on the floor in a circle with her colleagues and talk about the common challenges and successes of our shared work.
Life-wise, it’s my mom. She was a single mom raising six boys with very little income. She divorced my abusive father, had her two oldest sons in the Vietnam War, but she seemed to take care of the world. I remember when she died; she had literally 35 cents in her checking account and hundreds of people at her funeral. She defined grace and true wealth to me, in the deepest sense of the words. She was a gentle but very strong presence in the first 10 years of my life. I frequently wonder if she would be proud of me, and the work I have devoted my life to.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I always liked Frank Sinatra’s response when interviewed by Walter Cronkite in 1966…
My family which includes my friends and having their love and warm regard of me, doing good work that is meaningful, and being a part of a community I feel passionate about… These are what I treasure most.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I love to take an occasional long weekend down in Palm Springs with friends where my biggest decisions are what time to go to the pool, whether to have a cab or a pinot, and where am I eating dinner. I always find this old radio station on that plays hits from 1940s and ’50s. I just love it!
What is your current state of mind?
What I have been journaling a lot about lately is how I can become more calm and gentle as I grow older. I have been feeling a real shift in that direction over the last couple of years since I have made it my focus. I seem to be more drawn to others in that state of mind now as well.
What is the quality you most like in people?
I really like somebody who is calm and gentle. I actually find myself seeking them out in a crowd in this season of my life.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
People with money and power who don’t use it for the greater good, whether they are a politician or just plain rich.
What do you most value in friends?
I love loyalty, and I cherish the friends that I have had for years. I love traveling through my life, not just with new folks that enter it, but with the camaraderie and friendship of those I’ve known for years. As a Santa Barbara native, I love walking down the street and seeing people that I have known for years, or running into people at work-related meetings and functions that have done good work alongside me all this time.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I don’t know how to answer that but what many people tell me is that I’m approachable and accessible.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I like to play around with characters. I mean, as a teenager I was always imitating celebrities and joking around doing funny vignettes. One of my shticks is as Merv Griffin’s gay lover for four years, going around in caftan with a martini glass, threatening lawsuits. Or…Marlene who is the receptionist, who says “please hold, one moment please” constantly. I tend to call people poodle or sugar frequently.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I want to be a lounge singer in old classic nightclubs in Palm Springs.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’m not joking, as an aging gay man, I have a little vanity left. I have hair dreams where I actually have a full head of hair that I fling back dramatically. Now the only proof of the hair I once had are in photographs of my youth. It was very blonde.
Where would you most like to live?
On the coast and in the desert simultaneously. I love Santa Barbara, and driving to the desert occasionally, the mornings and sunsets are just beautiful in both.
What is your most treasured possession?
As the youngest and gayest of six brothers, I have found myself the inheritor of my family’s history of furniture, china, linens, and other such things, and I surround myself with them and love it. It’s like 150 years of history. My very small home is my hide out with an interesting interior design style — an antique oak, ‘50s retro, Hawaiian, Pan-Asian, Mexican pottery sort of feel, with sacred altars mixed in. If you come to call, you might just itch looking at everything, but what the hell, it’s me.
Who makes you laugh the most?
I think all my friends and family make me laugh most heartily, both those living and those who have died.
What is your motto?
One of my most favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life, and when Jimmy Stewart takes over his dad’s business, he is standing behind the desk, and there is a sign hanging on the wall behind him. It reads, “All you can take with you, is that which you have given away.” I don’t know if this is my motto, but it has always stuck with me.