Forced Apart: Alison and Michele Fight Back Against DOMA, Urge Inclusive Reform and Humanitarian Parole
I met Michele in August 2010 after moving to the Rocinha favela, one of the slums in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I sold my car after graduating from Colorado University in Boulder with a degree in International Relations, packed two bags, and landed in Rocinha to teach English at a non-profit organization. It was here that she swept me off my feet with her winning smile and easygoing attitude. Michele and I were inseparable right from the start. Over time, she became my best friend, my girlfriend, and the person I wanted to spend my every waking moment with. We would stay up talking for hours until the sun came up over the ocean and I knew I had never felt so comfortable being myself around someone as I did when I was with her. As I learned how to speak Portuguese, our relationship blossomed even further and I felt more connected to her, while better understanding her culture and where she came from.
Our relationship began to develop and my original 5-month stay in Brazil stretched out to one year. Eventually one year turned into two. I couldn’t fathom life without waking up to our morning conversations or our romps around the city. I didn’t see any reason for us to be apart but I was tired of living far from my friends and family and working informally as an English teacher without a chance to provide a better life for us. On my birthday, May 5, 2011, the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court unknowingly gave me the perfect birthday present by handing down a decision requiring same-sex civil unions nationwide. We took it as a sign.
Michele and I knew we were in love and wanted to be together without worrying if I was going to be deported or how I was going to keep working. After talking about the value of our relationship and how much it meant to continue being together in the same place, we decided to get married. Quickly after, we were contacted by a television channel asking us to participate in their new show, Chuva de Arroz which highlights wedding styles outside of the norm. Since the law had recently been passed, they wanted to feature one gay couple and one lesbian couple on their show. At first, I was completely against the idea. I didn’t want to expose my life to the whole world because I’m a fairly private person but I began to realize that it would give us the chance to commemorate our love with the close friends that had supported our relationship and possibly inspire other same-sex couples to realize that their dreams of getting married could come true too.
By the time of our wedding, we still hadn’t obtained a marriage certificate because it took five months to be approved. We were not expecting this delay since heterosexual couples are approved in about a month. But the show had to go on! We had a beautiful ceremony in the middle of sprawling gardens with about 70 of our closest friends and Michele’s family. Only months after our wedding, we were informed that we were in fact the first female couple to obtain a marriage license in Rio and possibly in all of Brazil.
After the show, we had positive feedback by other couples that wanted to start getting married now that the law was passed. We were invited to attend a joint wedding between 50 same-sex couples at the Ministry of Justice building in Rio where we both cried with happiness seeing so much love in one place! Unfortunately, for these couples, the process was just beginning because they were only granted preliminary status as “stable unions” and each couple would still have to go through individual processing in order to obtain a marriage certificate. Certain judges were simply not upholding the law as they should have. We were featured in the first gay wedding magazine in Brazil that will now be published once a year as well as in a music video by Marcelo Jeneci. Lots of times we would step back and look at how far Brazil had come in such a short time and how accepting Brazilians were of same sex relationships. This is not to say that this is true everywhere. There are many places in Brazil where gays still fall victim to discrimination and incredible violence. Still, I was shocked that Brazil had somehow beaten the United States, a country that prides itself on freedom and equality for all, at allowing same-sex marriages to be recognized on a federal level.
Our wedding was beautiful but incredibly bittersweet for me as my American friends and family were not a part of it. I got through the day reassuring myself that in the near future we would have a wedding in the U.S. where my friends and family could also give us their blessings. We had decided that, while we both love Brazil, it was not a place for us to grow in our careers and future goals. We started planning a move to the U.S. It didn’t take long to realize this would be easier said than done since the U.S. does not recognize marriages between binational same-sex couples. I cannot even sponsor Michele for a green card like binational heterosexual couples can. And, to make a long story short, this is how, like so many other binational couples, I came to learn that the U.S. Supreme Court would soon be deciding the fate of DOMA and would possibly strike down this destructive law that has been tearing families apart for years. In October 2012, I came to the U.S. to visit with my family; I had been away for so long and we decided Michele would come on a tourist visa in January 2013 after finishing her studies as a Cultural Event Producer. The six-month visa would give us the chance to be in the U.S. to celebrate what we hope will be a victory at the Supreme Court in June, and to be able to spend quality time with my family.
When Michele’s first interview rolled around, I have to admit we were not as prepared as we should have been because we were told that Brazilians were easily obtaining tourist visas to the U.S. The Brazilian economy was doing so well and the U.S. encouraged them to come here and spend their money. We also consulted an immigration official about whether or not to include information about our relationship on her application. We were informed that we should always tell the truth, even about our relationship so as not to risk being denied a spouse visa in the future. When I got the call at 5:00 am on November 29, I was devastated to hear her sobbing on the other line, saying she had been denied the tourist visa. We were in shock. We were not at all expecting this outcome when I left Brazil. Michele said it was very clear in the interview that she was denied because we were in a relationship and the U.S. consular officials did not believe Michele would return to Brazil. Now, months later and after extensive research, I realize this was the worst advice we could have received because, without context and evidence of our strong ties as a couple to our home in Brazil, it left only the impression that Michele would not return to Brazil. It took a while to compose ourselves over the next few days as we tried to work out a Plan B.
Now apart for four months, we re-applied for another tourist visa, this time determined to prove that Michele was only coming for a visit and returning soon after to Brazil. She went in with confidence, with a letter from the Secretary of Culture saying she needed to do research in New York for a cultural project she was developing, an invitation from Long Island University to come give a talk about independent artist movements in the favelas, documents proving she had clients in Rio as well as lots of money in the bank and proof we had a residence together in Brazil. At her interview on February 8, 2013, she was denied a second time where it was made clear once again that despite all of the supporting documents, the reason for denial was our relationship. Now that she has been denied twice, it will be a very long time before she will be considered again for a visa. Sadly, we do not yet have access to the most obvious solution, that of sponsoring Michele for a green card as any heterosexual couple would be able to do. Rather than wait for change to happen, we are taking part in the important advocacy work, joining other binational couples from all around the world, fighting DOMA by sharing our stories, our experiences and the impact this law is having on our us and our extended families.
DOMA is a law that has been destroying the chance for couples like us to be together for years. I know there are couples that have been living in this limbo for decades longer than we have and my heart goes out to them. Many have children and deal with the constant issue of shuffling between countries, between visa expiration dates and heavy hearts at departures. It isn’t fair and it isn’t right. This country was founded on the principles of equality that are so blatantly lacking in this situation. Michele and I deserve to be treated the same as any heterosexual couple is, where at the very least, the American partner is able to sponsor his or her partner for a green card.
Now is the time to raise our voices and make our stories heard. Every day that goes by with DOMA in effect is another day that justice is denied. That is why we must continuously pressure our U.S. Senators and Representatives to adopt LGBT-inclusive language in the Comprehensive Immigration Reform that is currently being debated in Washington. We refuse to be labeled a “distraction” from the key issues; our families are not an expendable trading chip in the immigration debate. We also join other separated and exiled couples with The DOMA Project in urging President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry to implement a humanitarian parole policy that would allow gay and lesbian Americans to bring their foreign same-sex spouses/fiance(e)s into the country as DOMA’s end draws near.
Since we found out that Michele is not eligible for a non-immigrant visa and I cannot sponsor her on a green card as my wife until the Supreme Court makes a ruling in favor of all same-sex couples, I have come to the decision that I will return to Brazil to be with her. It is unfair to be forced to be apart while a group of judges debates the value of our marriage, and at least in Brazil we can wait together where we are recognized like any other couple. After participating in a march for marriage equality in Washington D.C. on March 26, I will board a plane to go back to Brazil. I’m arriving on March 27 which is our one-year wedding anniversary. It’s a date that is too important to miss and six months apart during our first year of marriage was hard enough to get through. While I am thrilled to be with Michele again, I’m incredibly disappointed that it has come to moving back, which was not at all in our plans. We have the right to build our lives together in the United States. I hope the judges understand the full weight of their decision and what it means for all of our families.
Help us and thousands of separated and exiled couples as we fight to reunite in the U.S. Please share our story with your family, friends, and elected officials.