Reflections on the South Bay GLAAD Campaign for Same-Sex Commitment Ceremony Announcements in the San Jose Mercury News
By Robert Greeley
An interesting bit of South Bay LGBTQ history happened 29 years ago in February 1992 when a group of same-sex couples and their friends, led by South Bay GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), held a Valentine’s Day rally at the San Jose Mercury News to protest their policy of excluding same-sex commitment ceremony announcements from their weddings page. What follows are my memories and reflections on that long ago day, set within the context of the full-on campaign for equality that surrounded it.
We at GLAAD couldn’t understand the paper’s insistence on strict legalism when it was totally unnecessary. The times were changing; gay and lesbian couples were becoming more visible and demanding equal treatment in society. The Mercury News was the paper of record in a generally progressive area. We weren’t asking them to be the first paper to print our announcements because the Oakland Tribune had already done so. Their argument was that same-sex marriage was not yet legal. Our response was “so what?”
Although we weren’t surprised by the initial denial, we did encounter a lot more push-back than we expected when we persisted. To our great dismay, the more we pressed them, the more they dug in their heels. At that point we realized we’d have to launch a major offensive to get them to reverse their policy.
We quickly decided on an inside/outside strategy. South Bay GLAAD Co-chair Christine Schmidt and key member Ralph Serpe worked the inside angle – connecting and coordinating with supportive employees at the paper, and dialoguing with and later formally meeting with management – while I headed up the external pressure operation – visibility actions, phone and letter-writing campaigns, rallying the community, encouraging same-sex couples to submit their commitment ceremony announcements, and so forth.
South Bay GLAAD members eagerly took up the challenge and threw themselves into all these activities. For many in our group, while this meant moving outside our comfort zones, it also meant discovering we could raise our voices for a good cause, find the inner strength to be out and proud, and learn the power of activism. For instance, some members were startled to discover they were bolder than they ever imagined when they confronted a Merc executive at a town hall meeting.
The culmination of our visibility campaign was a large, rowdy, full-throated protest on the doorstep of the Mercury News’s headquarters on Ridder Park Drive on Valentine’s Day 1992 – in the rain!
The bad weather did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd, though, who waved colorful signs such as “Celebrate ALL Forms of Love” and “Gertrude and Alice… Why Not?” while fiercely chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, homophobia’s got to go!” and “2-4-6-8, why does the Merc discriminate?” We were grateful that Queer Nation turned out a good number of their members that day in support, and all together we had probably 25 or more highly charged, amped-up protesters demanding equality – it was exhilarating!
A succession of speakers made our case with great passion and conviction, including couples who had previously been denied by the paper, and another couple publicly renewed their vows. When they finished, our eyes were even damper than the rest of us. I still remember vividly how raw our emotions were that day.
Following the rally at the Merc, a number of us went on to the County building to try to take out marriage licenses – knowing we’d be refused but determined to make the point loudly and publicly that state marriage law discriminated against us. We were boisterous, had fun, and reveled in the camaraderie that comes from being in struggle together against oppression.
While unfortunately we didn’t succeed in drawing any TV coverage that day, we did garner a bit of reporting in the Merc itself, as I recall, and of course the LGBTQ press covered it too. But the largest ripple effect that day was mostly unseen: During the protest one of our leaders received a discreet message that a group of Merc employees were 100% on our side and were “working from within” to press for change. Here was immediate proof that we were having an impact and changing minds!
Empowered by our bold, rainy Valentine’s Day protest, we continued to beat the drum of equal representation for many months thereafter, keeping the pressure on the paper until they finally relented. We were overjoyed when Amy Brinkman and Katy Viall’s announcement ran in November of that year – a sweet victory for them, for us in GLAAD, for our community, and for equality.
[On a personal note, my leadership of South Bay GLAAD and, within that, the campaign for equality in the Merc were the highpoints of my own work as an activist. It was a heady time.]