Lesbian couple denied by California winery wedding venue receives apology after performer Nikki Levy intervenes
Dezanea Reyes and Alex Biddle were researching wedding venues in August when they encountered discrimination in the form of rejection just for being a same-sex couple. Reyes and Biddle, a lesbian couple in Sacramento, California, got engaged on August 26, 2019, after Biddle proposed to Reyes at Biddle’s graduation from barber college. Reyes started researching wedding venues shortly after getting engaged.
“The wedding planning process so far is still just beginning,” says Reyes. “So far no challenges but very many surprises.”
While researching wedding venues in California, Reyes reached out to Viaggio Estate and Winery in Acampo, California. What she received in turn was an email that read:
“Thank you for your interest in having Viaggio Estate and Winery host your wedding. While Viaggio Winery welcomes your business, we have never hosted a same-sex marriage. The owners welcome you to come by to discuss the following issue further in person, as emails can often be impersonal. They understand that California statutory law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, and they don’t like to think they would ever discriminate on that basis even if a law allowed them to do so. However, the owner also has a very strong personal religious belief regarding marriage, which is for marriage to be between heterosexual couples only. They believe that the United States Constitution and the California Constitution protect these religious beliefs and their right to express them. They completely understand that you both are on very opposite ends of the spectrum here. The current laws regarding religious freedom, freedom of expression and nondiscrimination in this area seem to be at odds. The owners would like to welcome you and your family and friends though, so they are hoping you can come up with a solution that makes both of you comfortable. They have thought this over thoroughly and would like to offer that you do everything here after you have completed the actual marriage ceremony. They have had to figure out what exactly would make them feel comfortable in not violating their own beliefs while accommodating your comfort level as well. If you would have the ceremony elsewhere, they would welcome the cocktail hour, dinner and dancing reception here. You may come in your wedding attire and take photos and receive the same services as other guests of ours who have married off-site and have the celebration here. It is the actual ceremony that would be violating their personal religious beliefs.”
Aside from Viaggio, I have not come across any other homophobia or bigotry,” says Reyes. “At first I was looking at venues in Lake Tahoe and came across one I liked. I asked them as well if they were OK with same-sex weddings because I want to make it clear to places. The event coordinator told me yes, they welcome same-sex weddings and she [was] surprised that it is even an issue anywhere. That was even before I received the message from Viaggio. I knew there could be possibilities of venues not allowing same-sex couples because they are religious but I try to do research on venues before sending inquiries in case they make it publicly known that they are religious based.
Overall, Reyes and the winery exchanged several emails. The winery sent four, including the one above, which Reyes says was “written by the event coordinator, who was just doing her job, letting me know what the owners said.”
Reyes also exchanged emails with the owner of the winery. “In my email I explained to her [that] I want both my ceremony and reception in the same place because I have many family members and friends coming from out of town and wouldn’t want them driving more than they already have to. The owner still proceeded to say she could not allow my ceremony because of it being same-sex. She also expressed that she does have LGBTQ worker and two gay sons which one is married. I never wrote her back because I found all of that to be irrelevant to my situation.”
After talking with her friends and family, Reyes shared the original email on her Facebook page. “When I got the first message from the event coordinator I had mixed emotions. I didn’t know if I should be anger or just let it go and move on. The entire day after receiving the email, I talked with my fiancé, family and friends to see how they felt. Most were angry and some did tell me well it is their right to their beliefs, which I completely agree with. But it just kept eating at me inside. I was thinking if I don’t say something someone else will get that message and be hurt as well and I didn’t want that for someone in the future. So that was when I decided I am going to just post it. Which was the first email. I just wanted to make it aware to people what they venue said.”
That’s when Nikki Levy got involved. Levy, a media personality in California, says she was “scrolling through Facebook last weekend and saw their post on a random FB group. I am active in our community because I have a big comedy event called Don’t Tell My Mother! where diverse personalities and performers tell true [stories] they’d never want their moms to know. As such, I’m in many queer groups. I was dumbfounded. How could this be the email they received from a wedding venue in CA in 2019?? If this was accurate, we couldn’t let this go on!”
Because Levy didn’t know Reyes, she decided to do her own investigation. “I rattled off a quick note to the venue inquiring about holding my gay wedding at their space,” she says. “I got the same email back and was called to action. I knew it was against the law (LGBTQ+ people are protected under UNRUH Civil Rights Act in CA), and I wasn’t going to let them get away with foisting their bigotry on others. I wasn’t going to stand for any queer people EVER getting this email again.”
After writing to the winery and thanking them for their transparency and letting them know that Levy planned on sharing their email on social media, she did just that. “I shared it to my FB page and queer people and allies stood up for what is right,” she says. “The winery was called out on their discriminatory and illegal policy. People wrote into their Yelp page, The Knot, Wedding Wire, and sent them direct emails (the winery’s response included the owner’s email). No change has ever come from a closed mouth.”
Levy, who recently married her partner in August, brought the winery’s bigotry in front of a larger spotlight, which resulted in the winery reversing course on its public-facing business stance on same-sex marriages.
The winery released a public statement reading, in part:
“Viaggio Winery welcomes all couples, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, to our winery and wedding venue, including all wedding ceremonies. It is our hope that all will feel welcomed and respected at our winery, which has been our home since 2012.
In recent communications with potential visitors, I tried to explore options for celebrations that would accommodate both my religious beliefs and the expectations of our community. I realize now that contrary to my intent, this was hurtful to the people involved.
Our staff, our customers and our community have helped me see that I was wrong. Our policy has been changed, effective immediately. All couples are welcome to hire our facilities for weddings and the celebrations that go with them.
I am sincerely sorry to have caused anyone pain at a time that should be joyous.”
On the same day, the owner emailed Reyes letting her and Biddle know they could now plan to have their wedding their—ceremony and reception. The owner told Reyes “that her personal beliefs are not the same as her staff and she would be willing to set them aside.” Reyes adds, “I don’t plan to respond.” While she’s not interested in having her wedding at Viaggio Winery because she “just wouldn’t feel comfortable,” she adds “but I do hope the best for their business.
Reyes was surprised to have learned that Levy had gotten involved and “I was just shocked that someone else got the same message as me. And I was baffled. The next day when I had news reporters getting in contact with me, they told me who she was, and I was just like OMG, someone who is well-known saw my post. I never imagined that it would have gotten this far. I feel Nikki was my blessing in disguise that helped. I have never met her or heard about her until Sept. 11. I knew my friends were going to help me spread word but that’s all I had imagined.”
I asked both Reyes and Levy the same question: Should businesses receive religious exemption status from hosting LGBTQ+ weddings?
“I feel everyone should be entitled to their religion,” says Reyes. “Yes, the world is evolving so businesses should be open-minded. But if a business owner wants to have a religious based business make it very publicly know. It’s like church or schools. You know going into certain churches or certain schools they will publicly let you know how they operate so you have no surprises unless one was to occur. Businesses should do the same. For example, there is a known religious-based fast-food restaurant in the world, Chick-fil-A.”
Levy believes that business owners who don’t want to work with LGBTQ+ weddings “should live in a state where their religion still trumps the law, but in this one (California), equality trumps bigotry. They don’t have a religious business—they have a public one. So the law wins. To note, I appreciated their apology. I can interpret it as damage control, but I choose to see it as a business owner copping to the error of her ways and making an amend. People spoke up, and because of that, people are learning. We are all learning, and none of us is perfect.”
Levy and her partner married August 24, 2019. Her partner proposed to her in May 2018 in Las Vegas, Levy’s favorite place in the word. And Levy proposed to her in June 2018 at NYC Pride. “I was in NYC to perform with Lance Bass. We did a Pride Special together with Audible where LGBTQ+ celebrities told true stories they’d never want their moms to hear. I took her with me under the guise of a ‘work trip’ and popped the question in Washington Square Park.”
While planning their wedding, Levy says she was wary of encountering homophobia like she did with Viaggio Winery. “I was apprehensive every step of the way with vendors, even though we’re in Los Angeles,” she says. “[Federal marriage equality] is still only four years old, so it was important for us to let vendors know right off the bat that we’re a gay couple. I chose to convey that in a less direct way, so I’d say “BTW here’s a cute pic of us” and attach a photo. No one had a problem. For photographer, I would only consider people who had LGBTQ+ couples showcased on their insta or website. IMO, if they didn’t have that then they either have no experience with queer couples (which wasn’t going to fly with us) or they didn’t see the queer community as a community to reach out to (i.e. many photogs stage photo sessions for promo, so if a photog didn’t have any queer couples, it meant they didn’t put the importance on even staging a shoot). In the end, we brought a photog in from Las Vegas who had PLENTY of queer couples featured. That told us (without words) that she sees us as equal and important. Overall, vendors were just excited. Also, we both wore dresses. One famous dress store could not get a handle on how two girls could come in with the same wedding date (um, we’re marrying each other), but they weren’t rude, just clueless. In the end, my partner got hers from Floravere (a very queer friendly company) and I got mine from eBay 🙂
Levy wanted to have a Jewish wedding because she’s Jewish. Her partner isn’t. “It was very hard to find a Rabbi, but not because we are gay. Because we are interfaith! In the end, we had an amazing female rabbi who changed the liturgy (prayers, customs) to be 100% equal and gender-neutral. There is a tradition in Jewish weddings where the woman circles the man seven times. She had me circle my wife three times, my wife circle me three times, and us circle each other together. It was a beautiful, equal Jewish wedding!”
The couple had their wedding ceremony in their backyard with a boba bar. “Our relationship was cemented when we took a trip to Taiwan, the birthplace of boba,” says Levy, “so it seemed only fitting. My parents walked me down the aisle, and her partner’s mom walked her down. We wrote our own vows, and everyone cried.”
The wedding reception was held at Maggiano’s at The Grove, a restaurant. “They treated us like royalty,” says Levy. “It was a very queer-friendly venue and banquet team. We felt like queens.” Levy’s wedding vendor roster included their wedding coordinator, Hovik of Harutyunyan Events; Kassie Mattson of Feel & Focus Photography; and their stylist and makeup artist, Liam Cambridge, who’s also a drag queen.
Reyes says that she and Biddle are “still looking at venues and it will be anything that meets our budget as well as our vision.” Alex and I are still young—we’re in our mid 20s. This isn’t our first discrimination, nor will it probably be our last. But this is the one we decided to make public in attempting to prevent it from happening to someone else. We are very thankful to have all the support as well.”
Kirsten Ott Palladino
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