Together for 17 Years, Jon and Christophe are Married, Living in DOMA Exile in France
I’m Jon Benfer, an American, 42 years old. In 1995 I went to the Central African Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer based in Bambari working on one of the Peace Corps’ first HIV/AIDS/STD prevention programs. In April 1996 I met Christophe Michaux, 36, a Belgian, living in Bambari with his father, who was working for the World Bank as a civil engineer at the time. We dated for about a month and quickly fell in love.
In May of 1996, civil riots and a military mutiny broke out in Bangui, the CAR capitol. Peace Corps volunteers and most expats were evacuated by the French Army. Christophe and I flew out of Bambari in a French military transport plane side by side to the airport in Bangui, which had been secured by the French. While Christophe and his father returned to Belgium, PCVs were sent to Cameroon for a month of debriefing and processing. During very costly phone calls between Belgium and Cameroon, Christophe and I decided that I would not seek another post with Peace Corps and return home to the US, where he would visit me so that we could decide what to do next.
We traveled a bit during the summer of 1996 in the U.S. We even lived for a time in a tent in a pagan camp in upstate New York. It was an incredible experience to simply be with the one I loved in such a peaceful environment. It really gave us the time and space we needed to plan our next steps.
One morning, we decided that we wanted to be together. It was a moment the two of us will always remember.
Acting on the advice of an immigration attorney, we decided that the best route was for Christophe to come to the U.S. under a student visa and pursue his college education. We settled in Minneapolis. Christophe later returned to Belgium to apply for his visa, come out to his parents, and announce that he was moving to the U.S. While his parents were able to pay for university for two years, his father soon lost his job, and we had to pick up the tab for his education. Sadly, my work with nonprofits didn’t pay very well. To cover the costs, we bought a house at the right time and took second and third mortgages. Eventually it caught up with us, and we filed for bankruptcy, overwhelmed by the burden of skyrocketing college costs in the U.S. We now realize that getting a student visa is not an easy route due to exorbitant international student fees. For that reason, a student visa with beyond the reach of many binational gay and lesbian couples like us.
By the end of 2000, it was becoming clear that it would be increasingly difficult to keep stretching out the student visa. I was laid off and so started my own business. After months of struggling to find a way to make ends meet, we considered the unpleasant option of leaving the country and moving to France, where Christophe happened to have many friends. In then end, that is what we decided. In 2003, we sold the house, Christophe went to France to find an apartment, and I joined him in late 2003. While getting residency in France was far from easy, it was possible. By 2004, I had a temporary visitor visa, we were joined in a civil union (PACS), and were settling in to an apartment in Paris.
We were married in a beautiful wedding in Philippeville, Belgium, in October of 2004.
By 2010, I obtained permanent residency (equivalent to a green card). We bought a house in central France in 2007 and now live a country life with dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, and great neighbors. I estimate the total cost of our first 20 years together (because of the limitations put on us by U.S. as well as French immigration laws) at about $1,000,000. I earn in U.S. dollars, so I lose between 15 and 30% of my income immediately because of the exchange rate. We are lucky that my parents are in good health and come to visit every two years for a month and that Christophe’s parents decided to leave Belgium and retire very near us here in France. Our ultimate hope, however, is to return to the U.S. As my parents get older, this is certainly a major concern for us.
Ultimately, we’ve decided to share our story to help show the kind of unnecessary hardship that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) creates for thousands of couples just like us over the 17 years of its existence. Many couples have not had the luxury of being able to avoid separation by seeking exile in a third country. Sacrifices like those we and others have made should never have happened. Now, in 2013, we have an opportunity to ensure that such unnecessary sacrifices will be a thing of the past.
For this reason, we’re sharing our stories. As all branches of the U.S. government are considering DOMA’s fate, there has never been a better time to share our stories and inform the public of why DOMA should not be tolerated a day longer. Please join us by sharing our story with others or even sharing your own. As a result of our efforts and our stories, we are helping to ensure that all gay and lesbian binational couples will have the security to plan their futures together without the uncertainty and great expenses that we have experienced.