Cherisse Scott and Elise Saulsberry won’t claim they found love at first sight, but they both remember that initial spark when they briefly crossed paths at Artistik Lounge a few years ago.
“I noticed Cherisse and I think we made eye contact. But that was the gist of it,” said Elise, a 41-year-old Memphis native. “She was supposed to sing that night, and I didn’t know who she was. So when she got on stage to sing, I was like, ‘Wow. Who is this lady who sings like this and I haven’t heard her yet?’”
“You were cute. But I was in a relationship, so I couldn’t do anything but just admire,” said Cherisse, 45, who was helping tend bar that night. “I remember you trying to not have to stand in that long line again.”
They reconnected months later when Cherisse, the founder and director of reproductive justice advocacy and education group SisterReach, began a search for a staffer to lead BOITALK, the organization’s program to support masculine-presenting black and brown women. The two had been following each other online and Cherisse recognized the name when Elise’s resume crossed her desk.
“And what I remember is getting ready for this dinner interview with her and being a little flustered and feeling like I had to touch my makeup up or something,” Cherisse said.
Elise, meanwhile, was playing it cool.
“It was a great interview, actually,” Elise said. “I’m just like, OK, well, she’s cute, but let me switch gears: boss and future employee.”
After Cherisse fully disclosed her feelings for Elise to the SisterReach board, in a show of trust in her professionalism, the panel decided Elise was the most qualified candidate for the position. As the two began training and advocating together, their mutual respect and shared admiration only grew, especially concerning the faith-informed aspects of their work.
“Talking about God in a loving and inclusive way, lifting up God honoring women’s bodily autonomy and self-determination, us seeing people’s lives change, talking about reproductive justice in this faith context — I know I fell in love with her,” Cherisse said.
“To hear her talk in movement spaces is mind-blowing still to me,” Elise said. “I think it was [at] the same time of being in those trainings and just hearing her authenticity and her love for God. That’s around the time I started falling, too.”
In addition to their passion for reproductive justice and inclusive spirituality, Cherisse and Elise have another mission in common: raising their teenage sons, who are now 17 and 18. “[Our sons] hit it off immediately,” Cherisse said. “It got to the point where we would want to go on a date, but we wouldn’t want either of our children at home alone. So, she might bring him over here or vice versa. … just trying to figure it out as two black, single mamas.”
Elise now serves as the deputy director at SisterReach. The organization’s effort toward reproductive justice, a movement seeking to empower women through access to accurate information and resources about their physical health, also has an impact on how the couple approaches their relationship.
“It forces you to be truthful about who you are and how you are going to operate in the world,” Cherisse said.
As ordained ministers as well as queer-identifying women, black mothers and social activists, Elise and Cherisse feel the visibility of the personal, political and prayerful aspects of their lives can create positive change. The couple hopes their love story builds acceptance and provides younger generations with support they weren’t given in their earlier years.
“Whatever their narrative is right now, if it’s not a healthy one, it gives them hope as to what they can look forward to,” Elise said. “Growing up, I didn’t have that example, and so I can only imagine how it would have benefited me to have it.”
“I hope that we can be a model,” Cherisse said. “This is what love looks like. This is what covenant looks like. This is what friendship looks like. This is what setting boundaries looks like. This is what co-parenting looks like.
“None of those things are even assigned to gender or sexual orientation,” Cherisse said. “This is just love.”
As they eagerly anticipate deepening their commitment at their August wedding, Elise is looking forward to one new perk in particular:
“All of my friends that are married, in heterosexual relationships, they’re all ‘Oh, my husband, my husband.’ I was like, Oh no, I’m going to ‘my wife’ y’all to death.”
Find more black love in our Black History Month series
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.