Leif and Morris: DOMA Forces Gay American to Move to New Zealand, Far from Friends and Family

Leif And Morris Guernerville

Morris and I first met on an internet site in July 2008. Morris was planning to come to San Francisco in September of that year to attend the Folsom Street Fair. When we met on October 1, it was really love at first sight. Really. So much so, that from our first meeting we spent as much time together as possible during the month of October until Morris had to return home in early November.

Once Morris arrived back in the little New Zealand town of Te Aroha where he lived, we began emailing and chatting daily via Skype. We normally chatted for an hour or more, catching up on our respective days, lives, and planning towards their next time together.

Morris then returned to San Francisco for three weeks in February 2009 to see if the connection we had been building over the last three months was still as strong in person the second time around; it more than was. During the visit we didn’t travel much together but did spend a great amount of time with friends. Morris returned to Te Aroha and we continued to build upon their relationship online until I went to visit Morris in New Zealand in May  of that year. My trip to New Zealand was magical. It was one of exploration, while falling deeper in love with the man of my dreams.

 After I was back home in San Francisco, we kept up daily communication leading up to Morris’s next trip to see me for the month of July 2009. During the month we spent the bulk of the time with my circle of friends who were rapidly adopting Morris as part of the family.

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Leif and Morris at the Hoover Dam

It was also during that visit when Morris and I met with a well-known immigration attorney in San Francisco. The goal of this meeting was to determine what Morris would need to get a visa allowing him to start a business in the US while pursuing a relationship with me. The meeting with the attorney made it clear that immigration to the US was a very difficult venture require deep financial investment on Morris’ part that we would not be able to afford. It would have required that Morris sell off his investments in New Zealand, which he was unable to do at that time. It was then that we realized that being together long-term in the US was not an accessible option. This was a major turning point that could have seen the end of our relationship as it was indeed Morris’ hope to leave New Zealand to be with me in the US on some kind of visa status.

Morris returned to San Francisco for two months in September. There were a number of major events for us during this trip, including our one-year anniversary which we celebrated at the Cliff House restaurant. It was during dinner that Morris asked me to marry him, to which I, of course, said yes. At that time, same-sex marriage was not legal in California and we were aware that if we did marry in another state that still would not change a thing because our marriage still would not recognized by the federal government because of DOMA. It was Morris’ idea for us to be “married” in New Zealand where, at that time, same-sex civil unions were recognized (marriage equality came recently to New Zealand).

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Civil Union in New Zealand, February 26, 2010

After Morris returned to Te Aroha, we started discussing our plans to be together. Having learned that Morris starting a business in the US would be too great a challenge and that our New Zealand civil union would not be recognized by the US government for the purposes of allowing me to sponsor Morris for a green card, we decided that it would be best for me to pursue a New Zealand work visa/permit so I could join Morris in Te Aroha. It was a very difficult choice to make for both of us.

For Morris, he had already been mentally establishing himself in the US with me and started separating emotionally from his NZ home.  For me, I had lived in San Francisco for most of my adult life, had a great job at The Gap Inc., sat on the board of a local fundraising non-profit called Grass Roots Gay Rights West and had a wide extended family that I was entrenched in and loved. Not only did Morris have to make the hard decision to stay where he was but I had to let go of all I had built around my life so we could be together because we knew that if we didn’t make a move to find a way to live together full-time that we couldn’t survive the long-distance struggles. Not only was the pain of being separated becoming greater with each trip but the costs of flying back and forth were mounting quickly (in the end it totaled over $20,000 that we’re still paying off).

But our love and dedication was too strong for us to continue living two lives, one when we were together and one apart.

Fish wharf photo

It was during Morris’ next trip to the US through New Years into January 2010 that we started socializing my intention to leave. It was not taken well but because people knew we were so in love we got support from all my/our friends who would then help us through the process and support my visa application to NZ.

We had our Civil Union in Auckland on February 26, 2010 in the company of close friends from both the US and New Zealand. We then spent our honeymoon between Te Aroha, Sydney and Brisbane. Then in March of that year I submitted my NZ Visa application.  Seven months later it was approved, and I have lived as a “DOMA exile” in New Zealand since that time.

I miss my family who live in Chicago and DC very much. I miss all my friends I still Skype with regularly and keep in touch with via Facebook (bless it). I have had friends die and not been able to attend their memorials, I have had other friends go through life-altering traumas like their homes burning down and facing disease and illness, but have only been able to support them from remotely. I have been trapped away from many of the people I love because of DOMA. We’re still getting a handle on the debt built up by our long-distance relationship and that has made it virtually impossible for us to go back to the US except for a quick trip I did in 2011. For Morris, he wants me to be happy and wants us to be able to return to our friends in the States and the loving community we are a part of. The only way this can happen is if DOMA falls and immigration laws allow me to sponsor my partner, the man I love, the man I gave up so much to be with. And for this reason we believe that we must all share our stories and bring DOMA to an end.

2 comments


  • Scott Barney

    Thanks for sharing your story for all to read. Here is hoping for the end of DOMA sooner v. later. San Francisco misses you Leif ! Hugs from Azaria and her Daddies.

    May 16, 2013
  • My wife-to-be is a native New Zealander, and I moved to NZ to be with her, and take advantage of the right to marry here. I left everything behind in the U.S. and it’s been very difficult to adjust to. We hope to retire to the U.S. in about 4 years, when her youngest child leaves home to start his adult life. But we won’t be able to do this, if the rights-situation for bi-national same-sex couples doesn’t change. It breaks my heart to think that we would ever have to be apart simply because she would not be recognized in the U.S. as my legal spouse. It is my hope that the trending through legislation legalizing gay marriage will help, but this won’t change the immigration issue, until that issue is also settled, so that we can not only marry in the U.S. (again) but that she can stay there legally as my spouse. We both have our fingers crossed, but it’s a huge source of foreboding that things will not change in the next four years. I’ve spent my whole adult life looking for her, whom I view as my soulmate, and I can’t imagine a day without her now. I can only hope that legislation will change this and will do what I can to increase awareness of this reprehensible policy to discriminate against same-sex couples.

    May 22, 2013

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This is a pro-bono project of the law firm of Masliah & Soloway, PC. Posts on this website are offered for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. The law firm of Masliah & Soloway, PC has offices in New York and Los Angeles. Our practice is limited to U.S. Immigration & Nationality Law.