GSN speaks to some ex-pats who left the land of opportunity for the chance to marry in the UK
President Obama’s historic endorsement of same-sex marriage, though pivotal in the fight for gay civil rights, is just that: an endorsement.
The fight has only just begun, as the real battle will be seen in the tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte between America’s state and federal governments. In order for same-sex marriage to be recognized as equal with so-called ‘traditional’ or opposite gender marriage the Obama administration will need to tackle the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Only then will gay spouses receive benefits including adoption rights, tax breaks, property rights, medical benefits, social security benefits and immigration rights on par with their heterosexual counterparts. President Obama announced yesterday that he intends to repeal DOMA in his second term.
DOMA forbids the federal government from recognizing any marriage that isn’t between a man and a woman. Currently only seven states’ governments within the US allow civil unions for same-sex couples.
US immigration law denies same-sex couple’s applications to sponsor their partners for a green card, an immigration rights issue that straight bi-national couples can by-pass. Some gay couples continue to fight, others marry someone from the opposite sex and others leave the country altogether.
America trails several other countries in terms of progress on equal rights for same-sex couples.
Sixteen countries around the world including the UK, Israel, South Africa and New Zealand allow citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration. Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay recognize same-sex civil unions and Argentina became the first Latin American country in 2010 to allow gay marriages.
Gay marriage is one thing, but the attendant immigration rights and couple benefits are proving to be quite another.
Even in the UK, where civil unions were legalized nationwide in 2005, frustration abounds for many bi-national same-sex couples looking to tie the knot. The recent government consultation on how to address the issue of gay marriage in the England and Wales goes to show that gays are still separate and not yet equal.
Jordan Bavin-Flaste met his now-husband Carl Bavin-Flaste working at a bar in London in 2008. Jordan, an American, was in the UK on a post-study work visa; Carl is a UK national. The pair got engaged after five months. ‘We very quickly realized we were destined for each other,’ Jordan told Gay Star News.
Before the two could marry, however, they needed to organize a mountain of paperwork. Jordan and Carl handled everything themselves, until they realized the certificate of approval for marriage was just an approval, not a visa. By the time the couple hired a lawyer, Jordan’s work visa had expired, rendering his precense in the UK illegal.
Under UK immigration law, the immigrant half of a civil partnership cannot simply enter said partnership and remain in the country; rather, the immigrant partner must return to their home country to re-enter the UK under a spousal visa, provided one is granted.
‘You just have to leave the country immediately,’ said Jordan of the spousal visa process.
‘I had no idea if I was ever coming back. I was pulled aside at Heathrow airport when they looked at my passport and saw my expired visa stamp’.
Jordan was able to return to the UK in May 2009 after his spousal visa was approved within four days of applying. He and Carl entered into a civil partnership the following month.
Jordan spoke to GSN about his feelings on civil unions versus gay marriage: ‘Separation makes it not equal.
‘I still say I’m married. I don’t care. Carl’s parents were there. Our close friends who could be there, were there.’
GSN asked Jordan how he feels about the progression of civil rights in the US.
‘I get upset with the fact that I’m married, but it’s not recognized in my own country. If we were over there [in the US] and Carl got sick, or I got sick, Carl wouldn’t be recognized as my partner, even though our families recognize us as each other’s husbands. The law is ridiculous.’
When asked if the couple would go back to the states, Jordan said: ‘It’s a lovely idea to talk about, but until gay marriage is recognized nationally, that’s just not a reality that will be possible. I think it’s 15 years down the line.
‘It took three years for us to finally feel really comfortable about the fact that even the UK government isn’t going to split us up,’ Jordan noted. That’s the length of time it took from civil partnership application to obtaining the civil partnership visa. And if any information is missing or incorrect, the application is refused and applicants must undergo the process and payment all over again. Then it takes more time to become a citizen in the UK. After being married for two years on a temporary visa, the immigrant spouse can apply for an indefinite leave to remain, and then apply for British citizenship.
Jordan said: ‘There are tons of cases of people abusing the system. The people in the Home Office said to our immigration lawyer that if people don’t catch any changes in the requirements for visa applications, they’re denied to clean out the queue.’
‘What friends have told me about when civil partnerships came in, in regards to bi-national couples, the Home Office didn’t want to be seen as being homophobic,’ said Jordan. ‘They were lenient to begin with, but as civil unions have become more common place, rules have become much more strict.’
Jordan gave GSN some insight into immigration rules with stories of friends, bi-national couples who have been denied entry into the United States because as UK nationals they were traveling to the US too often. When in reality the bi-national couple was traveling to the states to fix property they owned, the US immigrations officer accused them of trying to circumvent US immigrations law.
For as many horror stories that are out there, there are also tales of civil union success without the hassle.
John and Jacob (whose names have been changed at their request) met overseas on holiday. American Jacob and British John carried on a long distance relationship between Los Angeles and London, often times meeting in foreign locations.
Since John couldn’t move to the US because of his work, the couple hired a lawyer and did independent research to explore all their options for being together.
Jacob told GSN: ‘If our relationship was going to go anywhere, we had to live in the same town. Marriage was the only option for me coming to stay longer than three months.’
While their first conversations about marriage were jokey, they soon ended up with Jacob moving to London in early 2010. The couple started a process that included obtaining the certificate of approval, writing a thorough affidavit of their relationship, copies of bills and bank accounts.
After being civil partnered over the summer, Jacob, like Jordan, had to leave the country and re-enter the UK on a spousal visa. Jacob is applying for indefinite leave to remain this year.
‘I feel for a lot of people because it’s not easy and it is a lot to go through,’ said Jacob of the application process for civil partnership. ‘We’re fortunate in that our lawyer was really thorough and knew her p’s and q’s.’
‘We would seriously consider moving back (to the US),’ Jacob told GSN. ‘It’s on the table, but only if it looked like a smart move.’
For others, the smarter move is staying in the UK, recently rated the best place to be gay in Europe.
Daniel Miller, who is now living in the UK on a general visa, prefers the UK’s ‘overall attitude and views toward gays and lesbians as a people.’
‘I prefer the politics and social programs overall in England,’ Miller told GSN. ‘I want to be closer to Europe because I want to travel. I prefer the society here in general.’
Miller didn’t come to the UK to get married. In fact, he’s living in London with his American boyfriend who is in the country on a student visa.
Should the couple decide to become civil partners, Miller’s boyfriend would need to leave the UK and re-enter with a new spousal visa. ‘I think it’s a bit silly if you’re here,’ said Miller of the requirement for partners to return to their native country in order for the civil partnership visa to be processed. There is always the chance the Home Office could reject the visa application despite the civil partnership already being official.
When asked about the legalization of gay marriage in the UK, Miller said: ‘I think it’s coming, but I don’t think it will happen immediately.’