Johnny & Sebastian: Binational Couple Among First to Marry in New York, DOMA Means They Are Still Unequal

Sebastian and Johnny after marrying in Manhattan on June 24, 2011

There’s no doubt that Sunday June 24, 2011 will go down in history as a triumphant day for LGBT Americans. As the media descended on New York to report the first marriages of lesbian and gay couples taking place by the hundreds from Niagara Falls to Manhattan, it was hard not to have an emotional reaction, no matter how far we were from the action. What began courageously at Stonewall 44 years ago has once again brought us closer to reality in one of the most populous states in the country. 

However, as important as this milestone is for New Yorkers and for the cause of equality nationally, the goal of Marriage Equality cannot be achieved until all marriages are recognized by the federal government. As long as couples like Johnny and Sebastian are viewed as nothing more than strangers under federal law, they will be deprived of more than 1,100 benefits, obligations and protections that are available for all other married couples. And until the Defense of Marriage Act has been repealed or struck down, Johnny will be prevented from petitioning for a “green card” for his husband.
As we celebrate the joyous occasion of the marriages of loving, committed lesbian and gay couples we will redouble our resolve to stop the deportations, separations and exile of all lesbian and gay binational couples.

Below, native New Yorker, Johnny Lee, shares with us the experience of marrying his German-born, fiancé, Sebastian Barleben, on the momentous first day of marriage equality.

Sebastian and I had already spoken at length before deciding to get married that morning. Although he tends to be private and even a bit standoffish by nature, the opportunity to participate in this watershed moment outweighed his usual reluctance to be in the spotlight. And besides, we were already engaged. We were in the midst of planning the wedding of our dreams (and we still are) when history just happened. We decided we wanted to be a part of it.

For me, that Sunday morning at the City Clerk’s office in downtown Manhattan can best be summed up as a blur of intense emotions.  From the moment we arrived outside the heavily fenced in government building at 6:30 a.m., we could feel the excitement in the air.  Not even the extreme heat could dampen the significance of what was about to happen. A few early arriving couples milled about and television crews began setting up their cameras; but the protesters and police who would soon show up where still nowhere to be seen.  We started to meet other couples, including two men who had been together for 30+ years.  It was both humbling and inspiring to stand with couples who had made such lasting commitments to each other but who had been denied the opportunity to marry until this day.  We knew we were benefiting from decades of hard work by brave visionaries who probably had more faith than we did that this day would happen.  What made it so special was the sense that we were a part of a collective celebration that everyone in attendance seemed to acknowledge had not come easily.  We felt privileged and overwhelmed.  We bonded with perfect strangers because we all had one thing in common, the one thing that brought us downtown on that sweltering day: love.

The crowd on Worth Street swelled very quickly with couples, family, friends & supporters, along with press and police.  A handful of protesters were chanting something hateful from across the street, but they were drowned out by cheers coming from hoards of volunteers and random well-wishers who shielded and embraced us with rainbow colored umbrellas.  It was amazing to see how many people showed up simply to support us and to congratulate hundreds of couples they didn’t even know.  Sebastian and I were moved by their genuine joy.

 Sebastian and I were among the first couples brought inside the City Clerk’s office at 8:30 a.m.  We were quickly processed by one of the clerks who carefully went over the details of our license application and then ushered us into a small room where we were greeted by more press and by the Honorable Judge George Silver.

As Judge Silver spoke, everything suddenly became still. Despite all the commotion that was brewing outside, all I could hear was the sound of the Judge’s voice.  He took a moment to recognize the importance of the occasion and shared that he too was in awe of what was happening in the state of New York that day.  His words hit a nerve, and I couldn’t help but tear up from all the anticipation that had been welling up inside me that morning.  

Judge Silver concluded his remarks and pronounced us legally married, Sebastian and I kissed and walked outside the Clerk’s office hand in hand.  As we waited for our license to be printed, I suddenly couldn’t help but feel a little bittersweet about our moment.  Yes, being legally married in the State of New York was momentous for both of us; and yes, I was overwhelmed with joy; but, having lived in Manhattan for most of my life, I had to remind myself that the wondrous spirit of my own city on this day did not mirror the state of affairs for gay couples in most of the rest of the country.  In so many places, gay couples like Sebastian and me, have struggled for years in the fight for marriage equality and are still far from reaching their goal.  New York took a big leap forward on July 24, but 44 states still discriminate against lesbian and gay couples in marriage. We must keep up the fight so that everyone can experience the joy we felt that day.

Johnny and Sebastian in
New York Magazine

And that, of course, brings me to the most difficult part of celebrating our marriage that day. As we stepped out of the building to the cheering crowds, we knew that the offensively-named “Defense of Marriage Act” still prevented us from feeling truly equal.  Our marriage is denied recognition by the federal government, a fact that seems so obviously unconstitutional and unAmerican, but also has a direct impact on us because it prevents me sponsoring Sebastian for a green card as my spouse. Although we are fortunate for now that Sebastian is able to remain in the United States because of his employment-based visa, we also know there are tens of thousands of other gay and lesbian binational couples who do not have this luxury.  It saddened me to think that despite having reached this amazing milestone, there was still a long road ahead to finish the job. Nevertheless, the events of last Sunday were surreal and unforgettable. The sense of love and community that emanated from that place left us speechless and feeling more than blessed. We set forth as a married couple to play whatever part we can to make sure that all couples can stay together, have full legal recognition of their marriages and to make a better world in which the Defense of Marriage Act is no longer.

Sebastian and Johnny share the video made of their experience marrying on the first day of Marriage Equality in New York.

Josh Vandiver & Henry Velandia and Courage Campaign Ask Senator Robert Menendez to Support DOMA Repeal

Update: On December 18, 2011 the New Jersey Star-Ledger published this Op-Ed by U.S. Senator Menendez in which he announces his support for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Congratulations to Josh & Henry and the thousands of other lesbian and gay couples in New Jersey who spoke out about the impact of DOMA on their lives.

Read: “Discrimination Against Same-Sex Marriages Cannot be Tolerated in Our Society as a Matter of Law.”

Josh and Henry photographed in May in New Jersey’s Liberty State Park (Jonathan Ystad/GetEqual)

Today Josh and Henry teamed up with Courage Campaign launching an effort to persuade their United States Senator Robert Menendez to join 29 other member of the Senate and become a co-sponsor of the DOMA repeal bill, the Respect for Marriage Act. Josh and Henry point out in their letter to the Senator that DOMA is tearing apart married gay and lesbian binational couples. Senator Menendez is an ally of the LGBT community and is the co-author of the comprehensive immigration reform bill currently pending in the Senate that includes a provision that would allow for the immigration of partners of lesbian and gay Americans and permanent residents, however he has not joined the fight for repeal of DOMA. Last week the President formally endorsed the Respect for Marriage Act and the Senate Judiciary Committee held its historic DOMA repeal hearing. It is time for every supporter of LGBT equality to stand up and fight for repeal of DOMA. Call Senator Menendez at 202-224-4744 and tell him about the hardship caused to you by DOMA.

Dear Senator Menendez,

We write as a married same-sex couple on behalf of ourselves and many other New Jersey families who are being denied equality, out of concern over a particular piece of legislation.

Sen. Feinstein has introduced S. 598, the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the odious “Defense of Marriage Act,” or DOMA. We know you are a supporter of equality for same-sex couples, Sen. Menendez. What’s more, as the lead sponsor of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that includes the Uniting American Families Act, you know that ending DOMA would eliminate the discrimination in immigration law that nearly forced Henry’s deportation, even though we are legally married.

It is therefore with surprise that we learned you are not one of the 29 Senators who publicly support the Respect for Marriage Act. As you know, Senator, this issue would permit the tens of thousands of same-sex couples — many of whom live in New Jersey — to have access to the over 1,100 federal rights and benefits to which heterosexual couples are entitled. These include Social Security benefits, health insurance, immigration benefits, tax provisions, and more. These benefits would strengthen New Jersey families by providing tools that help loving, committed couples and their families to take care of each other. What’s more, if the Respect for Marriage Act becomes law, this recognition would not stop when couples cross state lines — the lawful relationships of loving, committed same-sex couples could be recognized in all 50 states.

Through our Stop The Deportations project we’ve joined with other same-sex bi-national couples who are being denied immigration benefits due to DOMA. Many are facing the nightmare of deportation and separation because of DOMA. We hope it’s an oversight that you have not yet joined your colleague Sen. Lautenberg in co-sponsoring the Respect for Marriage Act, Sen. Menendez. We, along with supporters of equality across the country, look forward to your prompt reply.

With respect,

Josh Vandiver and Henry Velandia
Princeton, NJ

SF Chronicle: DOMA Enforcement is Changing, With DOMA Deportation Cases Leading the Way

Read the full article here.

Almost 30 Years After They First Met, Lin & Martha Continue to Fight for Couples Exiled to the DOMA Diaspora

Living Into a Fair Future
By Lin McDevitt-Pugh

This is a story about Martha and me. Martha went into exile in 2000 when two important and incompatible facts dominated our lives. We were in love and realized we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. Martha could not stay in the United States because US immigration law prohibited her from sponsoring me as her permanent partner to live there with her.

Martha and I live in the Netherlands. For the past 13 years we have been confronted with the fact that, in this time of globalization in which people often partner with those of different nationalities than their own, the United States does not allow its citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration purposes.

For the past 9 years Martha and I have actively worked to change this cruel law while she lives in exile. It is time for change. The US immigration law hurts us, hurts Martha’s family, hurts the thousands of families like ours, and it hurts the United States and the freedom it stands for. We think love can change the abject law that keeps Martha in exile. Martha needs to be able to go home and bring me, her wife of 10 years, with her. This is the story of who we are, our love for each other, and never giving up on our dreams.

When Martha and I fell in love we had been friends for 17 years.
Martha and I met in February 1982. I was working in an international media office in Amsterdam with people who promoted clean energy. I had a monthly journal to type but my colleagues were banging out a bi-weekly news release on our one-and-only machine. So I traveled across town to another non-profit, an international policy studies center, to see if I could use one their electric typewriters.

I arrived at the office and a young intern from the USA was typing away; she kindly moved to another chair and watched as I laboured through my pages of copy. When I came back next day to finish the job, I learned that, when she arrived in Amsterdam to start her internship, a co-worker gave her a list of names of people she should try to meet. Coincidentally, my name was at the top.

That is how Martha McDevitt and I met and became fast friends.

When my girlfriend of the time gave birth to our son, Koen, Martha adored him. Martha, a highly competent seamstress, created one little jumpsuit after another for Koen and frequently babysat for us.

In 1984, Martha met an American service woman stationed in the UK who was visiting Amsterdam for R&R; where she would not have to hide her sexuality. My family began celebrating holidays with Martha and her partner. In 1990, when Martha’s girlfriend left the military, the couple returned to the USA. Martha knew she would miss us but she wanted to be near her family and wanted to develop a career in her own country. She gave me a modem to put in my computer, so that we could email each other and keep in touch that way. I cried for 6 months. I missed my best buddy.

Fortunately, Martha found that her knowledge of Dutch and her computer skills were very much in demand in Silicon Valley. She was able to secure work that regularly brought her back to the Netherlands and I had work that occasionally took me to the East Coast of the United States; from there, I’d fly to San Francisco to visit her. In this way, we managed to maintain a close and precious friendship.

The friendship was easy and did not have any of the thorns and brambles we experienced with our lovers. My relationship faced constant turbulence despite the best will in the world. When our son was 12, my partner and I decided to disengage. Martha’s relationship, too, had encountered its own turbulence. We both concluded that relationships and turbulence went together, and easy companionship was a thing of friendship.

That changed the week of Martha’s 40th birthday when I visited her in California. By that point, Martha was a senior manager in a Silicon Valley firm and had separated from her girlfriend. It was during that visit that I recognized that what I felt was more than friendship. But with more than 16 years of ease and pleasure as friends on the line, my voice was barely more than a hoarse whisper when I asked her if she wanted to risk more. After what seemed many seconds, I forced my eyes to lift and to look at her. I encountered her smiling face, that beautiful face I had known and enjoyed for so many years. Yes, she wanted that too.

Sigh. This is the stuff of a fairy tale, or shall we say the kind of fairy tale I wish I was told when I was a child. Those kinds of fairy tales hadn’t yet been invented about two women with different nationalities, living on different continents, who fall in love.

And the fairy tale ending still has not been invented. Once we acknowledged we were in love, the confrontations with reality started. To begin with, we had to think about where in the world we would live. Literally. We had three places we could be with family. While I am a Dutch citizen, I am Australian by birth and am privileged to have two living parents in Australia. Martha was living near San Francisco, close to her family, and loving it. And my son Koen was 16 and living in Amsterdam. I certainly did not want to leave him before he was an adult.

For more than a year, from 1999 to 2000, Martha or I flew over the ocean at least once every 6 weeks to spend time together. When we weren’t together we spoke every day on the phone and we had a constant stream of emails. Martha knew it would be very difficult for me to move to the United States as immigration law only recognized heterosexual married couples.

But we had each other and a strong commitment to fairness. We knew that it was our right to be together because we believed – and continue to believe – that we all have a right to equality under the law. We believe that most people will agree with us if they let their hearts speak.

Still, going back and forth between two continents quickly lost its shine. In 2000, Martha found a job in the Netherlands and moved to join me there, 18 years after we first met. In May 2001 we married under the new Dutch law, one month after it was introduced. Having the right to choose to marry, we experienced what it was like to be first class citizens, with all the rights and responsibilities my brother and sister and Martha’s siblings experience in their own country. We don’t feel different, we are not legally different, we are simply people who choose to form a primary relationship with each other and have that relationship recognized by the State. We chose marriage. We wanted to stand up in front of friends and family and request that they support our relationship through thick and thin. We wanted to exercise our right to form that most essential cornerstone of society, the family. We experience the joy of our marriage every day of our lives.

The distinguished photographer Gon Buurman took photos at our wedding for use beyond our own living room wall. We were thinking about the power of the image to support the growing number of voices in the United States saying that two people loving each other should be able to celebrate that in the way that is customary in any society: through marriage. The photos have appeared in magazines and newspapers, on websites and in books. They have even been in art exhibitions, street exhibitions and an exhibition at a retirement home. We have been interviewed for more than 5 books and have talked about the where, what, how and why of our wedding in filmed interviews and in mainstream magazines in the 10 years since.

Martha even spent time on our honeymoon writing about these issues for a gay publication in the USA. We were astounded when the editor wrote back asking if we were sure the marriage was legal. His question was a distressing reminder that in United States it can be hard for even gay people to imagine legal equality.

But our marriage was legal and very real: from the veils and the bouquets to the flower girls, page boy, and the exchange of rings; from the kiss and the champagne on the steps of the City Hall to the celebrations afterward with family and friends from Australia and the USA, from Germany and the UK, and of course from the Netherlands. We were sung to, had poems written about us, we danced the night through and we celebrated life and love.

After several months, though, the reality of our situation began to weigh on Martha. She was living back in the Netherlands, somewhere she had never planned to return. Her dreams of living in her own country, with her family, building her career, were smashed. She had not voluntarily left the USA to be with me; she was exiled. Exiled for love. And because she knew that she was not the only one, in 2002 Martha founded the organization “Love Exiles” to be a community of people who could support each other in exile and who could work together, and with organizations in the USA, to put a halt to the unnecessarily cruel law that made it impossible for people to live in the United States with their foreign-born loved ones and spouses. We set up a board, with Janherman Veenker, a Dutchman whose partner of 20 years, James, was a dean at Rutgers University; Bob Bragar, a New York lawyer who had fallen in love with Rik , a judge in the Dutch law courts; Robby Checkoway, a US-born journalist living in the Netherlands with his UK partner Chris who ran a flourishing internet company; attorney Kirsten Anderson who had fallen in love with Dutch policewoman Jacqueline; and Martha and myself. Our first action was to organize a Thanksgiving dinner at which the Love Exiles living in the Netherlands treated representatives of the local community, including a mayor and a prominent politician responsible for opening marriage to same sex couples, to one of the USA’s finest eating traditions. A lawyer in Los Angeles knew we were organizing the event and he put his client, Tim Heymans in London, in touch with Martha. Love Exiles UK was born. Shortly after, when we were filming a film about love exiles in Germany, Love Exiles Germany was born. Then came Love Exiles Canada and Love Exiles Australia, all of them online communities sharing information on how to cope in a foreign land, how to let their elected representatives know about their situation and how to work toward changes in the law. None of us have come to terms with the fact that the USA would prefer to lose their citizens to exile rather than accepting their partners as residents.

In 2004 Martha joined an 8-day bus ride across the United States organized by marriage equality activists on the West Coast. Their aim was to travel through the heartland educating people along the way about why the freedom to marry matters. Martha kept an audio-log throughout the ride which was later broadcast on Radio Nederland and won a major media award.

A year later, in 2005, Martha was sitting at home in Amsterdam watching developments in California. An exciting majority of the state legislators had voted to open marriage to same sex couples. Would Governor Schwarzenegger veto the bill that would allow couples of the same sex to marry? With our rights hanging in the balance, Martha decided to book a flight home to try to be of help. Within days she was in Redwood City near San Francisco with her mother, preparing a two-day bike ride to the California capital of Sacramento. She bought a new road bike, contacted local marriage and immigration equality activists and set off early one morning to the flash of TV cameras on a journey that brought her to the Governor’s office.

I made a t-shirt for her to wear, with our wedding photo on it. I love the photo that was taken of her wearing it and standing under the portrait of the Governor and his wife. She didn’t get to see the Governor. She left a message. The governor vetoed the bill, saying the courts and not the legislators had to decide.

When Martha was in the States, my job was to inform the press. Alone on the other side of the world, at least I was in an advantageous time zone to get out press releases in support of the efforts of our friends from Out 4Immigration and to publicize the ride. The story of Martha’s ride to Sacramento was one of the top 10 stories of 2005 according to the Dutch magazine, Zij aan Zij.

There are many more stories I could tell about our ongoing efforts to expose the discriminatory effects of US immigration law and the negative impact those laws have on the ability of US companies to employ gay Americans who have foreign partners.

I really admire the efforts of my wife, Martha. Every day, she is thinking and talking and writing about a future in which our families will not face discrimination. She is fearless and at the same time sunny, funny and a treat to be with. One day she will have the right to live in the same country as her mother, her sister and her brothers, the country in which she was born – and to do so without having to leave me, her spouse, behind. We deserve that simple but critical right.

Monica & Cristina Take DOMA Deportation Fight to Board of Immigration Appeals, Challenging a 29-Year Old Precedent

MSNBC: Binational Couples Fighting for Full Marriage Equality and for the Right to Stay In the U.S.

See full article here.

Gay City News: After Halting Deportation, Josh Vandiver & Henry Velandia Continue the Fight Against DOMA

See original article here.

Monica & Cristina Fight for Their Marriage at the Board of Immigration Appeals, As NYC Celebrates Marriage Equality

U.S. Embassy in Sydney Denies Christopher’s Request to Visit Arthur, Enforcing 10-Year Bar With No Mercy

Christopher and Arthur fight a technicality that keeps them apart, despite their 14-year relationship

An update from Christopher Joseph whose heart-breaking story of a 10,000 mile separation from his partner, Arthur, was posted here on April 10, 2011. Christopher and Arthur met and fell in love in the United States 14 years ago, but following incorrect advice from an attorney, Christopher departed the U.S. to return to Australia after having overstayed his visa by 13 months. As he later learned, this meant that he would be barred from returning to the U.S. for 10 year, or until 2019.  Each year, countless lesbian and gay binational couples are separated by the 5 or 10 year overstay bars.  Christopher has been trying to get back to the U.S. begging elected officials and Consular officers for help. All his efforts, as he notes below, have failed.

From Christopher:

It seems our quest for a path to return to the United States has failed on all accounts. While I have been here in Australia I have sought help through the US Consulate without success. Their response has been that it didn’t matter why I overstayed my visa; even though I may not have been at fault, the ten year entry ban would be enforced with no chance for any appeal. The Consulate Officer was quite belligerent in writing, so much so that it felt that they were enjoying denying me any help. Meanwhile Arthur had been getting assistance with a representative of Marriage Equality who arranged a meeting with our U.S. Senator back home; but again, no success. The Senator would not call the Consulate on our behalf even though his staff indicated to us that he believed he was supportive of our plight. All other avenues have fallen flat and we have been left staring at locked doors. We have one final act seeking help with another Senator but judging by past efforts, we don’t hold much chance of anything positive coming forth.

We are devoted to each other and our love for one another will not perish even though it seems we cannot spend our lives together. As I said in my letter to our Senator, I spent 33 years of meeting people and not finding my Mr. Right until I found my Arthur and he found me. I believed love was never going to find me but it did and no lawmaker, cetainly those who have never met us but yet still believe they can decide our fate, will ever keep us from the love we share. Arthur has spoken about coming to Australia, a country that doesn’t allow same sex marriage but does allow same sex partner immigration. In that sense the U.S. could learn a few things from what other countries are doing. American politicians tell the world that “all men are created equal” and generously uses the word “freedom” as though it is something they can export by example. That is far from the truth as far as we are concerned. Arthur has a stable home and family life in the U.S. and I would never want to break that up. We both live in hope that one day soon, those who make these laws decide to change them and we would never want anybody to go throught the pain we now have to endure. Whether or not this is survivable only time will tell. At the moment I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I believe the tunnel end is a rock wall.

Without the Defense of Marriage Act we would actually have a chance to overcome this 10-year bar. Arthur and I could marry (we’d have to fly to a third country to do it, like Canada) and then apply for me to immigrate to the U.S. Through that process, I could apply for a waiver on the basis of my marriage to a U.S. citizen, if I could prove that it would cause extreme hardship to Arthur if I were unable to immigrate before 2019. Knowing the hardship we have experienced for the past two years, I hardly think it would be difficult to explain that concept to Consular Officer. Of course none of this should have ever happened. If we had married in 2009 and Arthur had been able to petition for a “green card” for me, my story would have been just as simple and straightforward as that of any straight binational couple.  DOMA caused this disaster, perhaps these are its unintended consequences, who knows? It doesn’t matter. There are many lesbian and gay couples whose lives have been ruined because of DOMA and the 10-year bar on returning. A broken immigration system and a cruel, discriminatory anti-gay marriage law have caused so much sorrow.

If by chance you are a law maker and are reading this, we both hope you never have to be apart from those you love and who love you. Your decisions, or lack thereof, are destroying true families and you are destroying love. The agony we feel is so far the worst feeling we have ever encountered. In some ways, losing a loved one may be an easier thing to deal with for there is closure. With Arthur and I, all I do is wonder how he is and how hard it is when he needs my help.

DOMA needs to end. We need to have full equality, dignity and respect for all LGBT families. Foot dragging by any politician on this issue means more families torn apart, more lives destroyed and continued second-class citizenship for all lesbian and gay Americans.

Video: Stop The Deportations Rally Across From San Francisco Immigration In Support of Doug & Alex

Thanks to Sean Chapin for putting together this video montage of our July 13 rally. The result was a big victoryfor Doug and Alex.

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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.