Kathleen Sassara; Co-Content Editor
Emma Amiad has been a household name on Vashon Island for over 30 years, known for her influence, activism, and fearless attitude. But Amiad’s lifetime of spearheading social and political change began long before her time on the island.
Her narrative weaves through nearly every major event of the late 20th century, from the Vietnam War to the Gay Rights Movement, and from the civil rights marches to protests for women’s equality.
Her story begins in Southern California in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor bombing. Born only a few weeks into the U.S.’s involvement in World War II, Amiad’s early life was colored by the war effort.
She realized very early on that she was lesbian, and it changed the course of her life.
“I never had the illusion that Mr. Right would come along,” Amiad said. “So I was going to have to make my own living; I was going to have to make my own way, and I was going to have to make my own life.”
After her graduation from high school, she decided to attend a local barbering college. According to Amiad, the move was unusual.
“There were probably four or five women barbers in the whole state of California,” she said.
Even before turning 21 — then the legal voting age in her state — Amiad became politically active. She sought out and managed the campaign of the first female mayor in her town.
“I found a woman who said she would run, and she had a platform of things that were improvements for the community, and she won by a landslide because we actually campaigned,” Amiad said. “The [male opposition] didn’t because they didn’t think they had to.”
This success inspired her to get involved with the many political movements of the the time — civil rights in the 1960s, women’s rights in the 1970s, and then gay rights as the community became more outspoken.
It was during this time as well that she began dating seriously and encountering its associated challenges. There were very few options for gay and lesbian people to meet each other in the ’60s and ’70s. According to Amiad, “you got what you got.”
“You couldn’t go to the opera and know that there were other lesbians there that you could relate to,” she said.
By 1968, Amiad wanted out. After a string of unsuccessful relationships and a year of political turmoil in the wake of the Vietnam War, she knew she needed to get away from her life in the city, and wanted desperately to find out what was happening overseas. While walking past an army recruiter’s office one day, the answer became clear.
“I thought, ‘Oh, a way to find out the things I want to know, and a way to get the hell out of here,’” she said. “So I went into the Army.”
She went into military journalism, and as a 26-year-old among 18-year-olds, Amiad was quickly promoted to a leadership position.
Her work won her several awards, including an Army Commendation Medal for her coverage of Hurricane Camille in 1969. It also didn’t take her long to develop a better understanding of the Vietnam conflict — and realize that she couldn’t support it.
“I don’t even know what you’d say I was when I went in,” Amiad said. “Naive is a good word, I suppose. But I started hearing the stories of what was really going on, and reading things available to read, and realized that I didn’t want to be a part of this.”
Her response, of course, was to begin an underground anti-war newspaper.
The newspaper ran for two years, during which time Amiad was never caught. However, several of her co-conspirators were, and the remainders of their lives were likely very grim.
“The men who worked with me, once they were discovered, were all sent to Vietnam and probably all died, because none of them really had combat training,” Amiad said. “That was their punishment for being caught.”
In 1971, Amiad got an early release from the army to attend college full time, and returned to California. There she held several jobs in various newspapers and magazines, but nothing that could really provide her with the level of responsibility or income she desired.
“I couldn’t survive on it, so I said ‘I’ve got my barber tools right here,’ and I went back to cutting hair,” Amiad said.
By 1977, Amiad had decided she wanted to move to Seattle to be closer to her family, who had all ended up in the Puget Sound region.
Here she once again began cutting hair and organizing community events. She was instrumental in the founding of Congregation Tikvah Chadashah, an assembly of LGBTQ Jews in Seattle, among other groups for women and the gay community. She also got involved with political campaigns again, and was instrumental in current King County Council Chair Joe McDermott’s first run.
Though she was loving life in Seattle, she soon began to realize that she wanted out of that city too.
Her first visit to the island came on a mission to find a vegetarian restaurant. At the time, the only vegetarian restaurant in the Puget Sound area was on Vashon, a place that many have known and loved called Sound Foods. While there for dinner with a friend, Amiad discovered just how beautiful the island was.
“I just looked around, [and] I thought, ‘Well this is heaven. I [have to] find a way to be here,’” Amiad said.
And in 1987, she did. In the meantime, however, she met the woman who would become the love of her life, Susan White.
The couple has now been on the island for over 30 years, and Amiad couldn’t be happier with their situation.
She immediately got just as busy on Vashon as she had been everywhere else, founding the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust and the local Audubon chapter and taking leadership roles in what was then a brand new Jewish congregation. She also attained a real estate license and began practicing as a buyer’s agent on the island, which she continues to do today, operating out of the space formerly occupied by Vashon Island Music.
According to Amiad, however, the greatest gift the Vashon community has given her is the ability to be herself.
“The community was just totally OK with me being gay,” she said. “I can just be who I [am].”