Same-sex couples who made lifelong commitments to each other never found the occasion printed in the pages of non-LGBTQ publications in the South Bay.
That changed on Nov. 7, 1992, when the San Jose Mercury News began publishing announcements of same-sex commitment ceremonies within the paper of record’s pages — reversing its policy of only featuring heterosexual couples.
Amy Brinkman and Kathleen Viall were the first same-sex couple to appear on the Saturday Lifestyle section’s wedding page, announcing their Sept. 12, 1992, commitment ceremony alongside a black-and-white portrait of the new brides in their wedding gowns.
Prior to dating in 1990, the two knew each other for years while working within the community; Amy worked for Santa Clara County in substance abuse services, while Kathleen ran a residential program for the AIDS Resources, Information & Services (ARIS) Foundation.
Their places of employment and address were left out of the announcement for safety and security reasons.
“It was a challenging thing for me to do, because I wasn’t out and I don’t know that I’m still out,” Amy said, referring to the fact that she is bisexual. “Katy always thought that they blurred our picture on purpose because they thought that it was a big step and didn’t want to shock people too much … but we were just happy that they changed their mind.”
According to Our Paper/Your Paper, an LGBTQ community newspaper in the South Bay, the change brought the Mercury News up to speed with similar-sized papers nationally, including the Oakland Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. By November 1992, the Washington Post was still considering the decision. The New York Times didn’t run a same-sex commitment announcement until 2002.
Amy and Kathleen’s openness about their relationship helped jumpstart conversations – even harsh, dehumanizing ones from her family – that slowly helped educate the American public, one story at a time.
These shifts started to impact laws around the country, including in Santa Clara County where officials were discussing providing domestic partner benefits.
“All these things seemed to fall into line together and push each other forward,” Amy said.
Months of pressure and protest
Reversing the heterosexual-only policy was a focused effort of several members of the local LGBT community and the South Bay Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). In addition to a letter writing and phone call campaign, organizers talked with supportive employees at the paper who could push for the change on the inside.
A Valentine’s Day protest at the Mercury News’ Ritter Park Drive office brought public attention to the policy at the start of 1992, which included GLAAD speakers, members from Queer Nation, previously denied same-sex couples and a vow renewal ceremony.
Mercury News’ then-publisher Larry Jinks defended the paper’s position, saying that “wedding announcements have always been for ceremonies sanctioned by the state.” That’s why Amy and Kathleen originally heard “no” after they first submitted their announcement on October 8, 1992.
Christine Schmidt, a South Bay GLAAD co-chair, said while Jinks’ explanation was plausible, it was wrong, citing other papers’ decisions to print same-sex announcements across the country.
“The Mercury News subscribes to an obsolete, prejudicial and unfair state law as the basis for their discrimination against lesbian and gay couples, when it is in their power to help move society in the direction of a more enlightened view of same-sex unions,” Christine said. “The Merc chooses to ignore the fact that the government won’t let us get legally married. Heterosexual couples can make that choice but right now gay and lesbian couples cannot … basically they are afraid to take a stand for fairness.”
Robert Greeley, co-chair of the South Bay GLAAD, said months of continued pressure and meetings with the publisher ultimately helped move the dial towards fairness in the Mercury News.
“To our great dismay, the more we pressed them, the more they dug in their heels,” Robert said at the time. “I was tickled to see that the Mercury News kept its promise and that our community was now fairly represented on its weddings page.”
Some readers, however, opposed the change and wrote letters to the editor expressing their disagreement: “The implication (of printing announcements) is that homosexual relationships are the equivalent both morally and legally of a marriage between a man and a woman. We believe you are wrong;” “Although you may consider yourselves enlightened, we consider your action both tasteful and an affront to our moral and religious beliefs.”
“They didn’t want anything to do with us”
That social and cultural backlash was why Robert and South Bay GLAAD sent the newlyweds a thank you and a bouquet of balloons for volunteering to publicly acknowledge their ceremony in the paper – a big step personally for Amy.
“It was scary for me. My family is very religious and ultra-right, and they rejected me because I was with Katy. They pretty much said they didn’t want anything to do with us,” Amy said. “Once I decided that I wanted to marry Katy, I was ready to it (publicly come out), because I felt like I joined that community.”
Amy said 175 coworkers, friends and community members attended their wedding at Christ the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in San Jose, a longtime supportive congregation, in a ceremony that combined traditional hymns, prayers and scripture with pagan traditions.
After the festivities, the brides headed to downtown San Jose for an evening at the Fairmont Hotel.
Kathleen’s family was very involved in the occasion, including her mother cooking a big Italian pasta meal for the reception afterwards.
Amy didn’t have the same reaction from her family. After inviting them to the ceremony, she received unsupportive, rejecting letters from her mother, brother, uncle and aunt. It wasn’t all encompassing; her sister and cousin attended the ceremony and another aunt sent a wedding present.
“I lost what I had with my parents as a result of this, but we had a really good group of friends and they were all in our ceremony,” Amy said. “They supported us 100%.”
Kathleen passed away in 2017 from complications of diabetes and heart disease. Amy lives in South San Jose, in a house Kathleen helped her purchase.