Time to Get Personal — Announcing the Launch of Our Series of Short Films, “Love Stories: Binational Couples on the Front Lines Against DOMA”

Photo by Kaliisa Conlon

When Lavi Soloway, co-founder of The DOMA Project, came to the United States in 1989 as a foreign student from Canada, he could never have imagined that one of his greatest challenges would also present him with a chance to bring about positive change in this country.

As one half of a binational couple and a newly-admitted lawyer with an expiring visa, he went looking for help with his own immigration status. What he found was common cause with activists and other lesbian and gay couples. This empowered him to join the broader LGBT movement for social justice and launch a national grass-roots campaign for immigration equality. Over time, strategies evolved, but he remained absolutely convinced that the greatest tool for achieving victory was the personal stories of binational couples struggling to be together in this country.

Los Angeles based filmmaker, Brynn Gelbard, first met her Irish-born partner, Lisa, eleven years ago in San Francisco. By then, Lisa had already won a green card in the lottery. Over the years, they came to know other couples who weren’t so lucky, which inspired Brynn to help.

Through her project, The DeVote Campaign, she has been creating videos of people from all walks of life discussing what inspired them to fight for LGBT equality. For so long, binational couples were afraid that if they publically took a stand, they risked being torn apart. As the Obama administration introduced new family-friendly deportation policies, binational couples seized the moment and began speaking out more forcefully than ever before about the hardships they endure. Increasingly, their target was the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the law that denies recognition of their marriages for all purposes including immigration and thus remains the sole obstacle to attaining a green card and a secure future for their families. Brynn jumped at the chance to record their stories and publish them online as a tool for inciting dialogue and change.

When Lavi and Brynn met in 2011, their decision to collaborate was rooted in the mutual conviction that exposing a mass audience to the unimaginable, real-life implications of this unjust law——the excruciating choices, crippling uncertainty and gut-wrenching sacrifices——was essential to mobilizing widespread, public demand for action.

On a shoe-string budget, Lavi and Brynn have traveled from Boston to Miami Beach, from Charlotte to San Francisco, collecting hundreds of hours of video of married lesbian and gay couples who are fully engaged in the fight against DOMA. These are voices of spouses who are assuming their own equality, who do not need a court or a Congress to tell them that their marriages are deserving of the same respect and, most importantly, the same protection under the law.

Photo by Joanna Chau

The result is “Love Stories: Binational Couples on the Front Lines Against DOMA,” a series of short films featuring these brave couples. The first to be released introduces Daniel and Yohandel, two young men who met and fell in love in Miami and soon found themselves searching for a way to stay together in the U.S. Yohandel contends with the profound disconnect between the ideal of freedom that prompted his parents to leave Cuba and the experience of second-class citizenship that he struggles with as a gay American. As Daniel and Yohandel share their devotion to each other and their determination to overcome the inhumane consequences of DOMA, we are left asking ourselves how such a cruel law could exist in a country that promises “liberty and justice for all.”

 

 

Daniel and Yohandel To Celebrate Their Anniversary By Filing For A Green Card and Fighting For Full Equality

This is a story about true love at first sight, a story about immigration rights, justice and of the hope that comes from fighting for freedom and full equality.

Daniel and I met last summer while he was vacationing in Miami from Monterrey, Mexico. I am a Cuban-born American citizen, who arrived in this country at the age of six.

Our magical journey started the moment Daniel walked into a local bar in Miami Beach on a quiet Tuesday night. My eyes locked with his and we couldn’t help but stare at each other. It was love at first sight. A few weeks earlier, New York’s legislature had passed its gay marriage law, and Daniel was proudly wearing an “I Love NY” t-shirt with a rainbow colored heart. The t-shirt was my ticket to walk up to Daniel and launch into some small talk. Hours later we found ourselves still engaged in conversation. I was excited to have met someone new, but I also felt the anxiety of knowing that we would probably not see each other ever again as he was returning to Mexico in a few days. My brain told me that there was no point in pursuing this further. Fortunately for me, my heart convinced me to ask Daniel out on a date, so I invited him to dinner. With butterflies in my stomach I barely slept a wink thinking about the strong connection I felt for Daniel. The next day we dined at my favorite Italian restaurant. The night was perfect, we talked about our families, values, and plans for the future. We spoke until the wee hours of the morning and by the crack of dawn we knew that our lives were going to be linked together forever. Little did we know then that a year later we would be married and fighting for our right to be together.

From that day, on we began a long distance relationship, speaking to each other every minute that we could steal away from our otherwise busy days. We stayed in touch this way, speaking every day for weeks until we both realized that we needed to see each other again. One day we came up with the idea of going on a cruise. So a few weeks after our first date, we reunited on a cruise of the Caribbean.

Our time on the cruise was spent talking about every subject under the sun, we talked about all the places we would like to visit: wine-tasting tours in Bordeaux, taking a walking tour in the north of Spain, getting to know Daniel’s home country of Mexico, and exploring the national parks of the U.S. It became apparent that we envisioned doing this together.

Shortly after our trip, we decided Daniel should return to Miami so that we could brainstorm together about our options. Since Daniel was a Mexican citizen he would need a visa that permitted him to come to the United States and work, and we soon learned that was no easy matter. Daniel came back in November to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. I remember thanking God that night for having found the love of my life and my soul mate. This time around Daniel stayed for more than one month. At that point we were probably still a little naïve: we expected Daniel would get a job and apply for a work visa so that we could finally be together once and for all.

Despite his Bachelor Degree in International Relations and Commerce, his extensive work experience, and the business network he had developed, getting a company to petition for a work visa proved to be very difficult. We were shocked and upset that we could not find any legal means that would help us be together. Of course, an opposite sex couple in our situation would have had other options. A young couple falling in love could be brought together by a fiancé visa, something an American citizen can file for a girlfriend or boyfriend to bring that person to the United States so that they can marry and file for a green card. As a gay couple that path was not open to us. Even if we were married, our marriage would not be recognized by the federal government because of the Defense of Marriage Act.

This year, we rang in the new year together and promised each other that we would never be apart again no matter what. As I woke up on New Year’s Day, Daniel surprised me with a beautiful silver ring. He looked at me and promised to spend the rest of his life with me. We began to prepare our wedding and asked our families for their support. Although at first the idea of our marriage shocked our families, they soon came around; they now understand the importance of our union and what being married would mean to us.

Professor (Reverend) Ed Ingebretsen Officiates at the Marriage of Yohandel and Daniel

Living in Florida, a state that has a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, we had to search for a state where we could marry. After weighing our options, we decided that getting married in our nation’s capital was the best choice. During this time, we learned about The DOMA Project and the work that its team was doing with gay binational couples like us. This reinforced our strong belief that we must follow the most ethical path: fighting for our rights. As an American citizen I felt so frustrated, powerless and discriminated against because I am deprived of the same rights that all other Americans enjoy, simply because I am gay. And what is the right that I most cherish? What is the right that my own government denies me? The right to be with the person I love. Having fled my native country of Cuba, where civil rights were taken away by the dictatorship of Fidel Castro, it is hard for me to accept that I am in the position of fighting for my own rights here in America.

This spring Daniel and I were back in an airport again, but this time we were euphoric; we were not going to be separated. We were going to be married. We flew from Miami to Washington, DC and had our wedding on the National Mall in front of the United States Congress. We timed our wedding so that we could be sure to marry before Daniel’s visa expired. We knew that we may not get another chance. If Daniel returned to Mexico, after having made so many lengthy visits to the United States in the preceding year, there was a very strong possibility that he would not be allowed to enter the country again. Being apart again was not an option anymore. We weren’t willing to hide, or to lie about our love or to compromise our principles. Our families, our friends and all the important people in our lives supported us. We believe that our love is equally worthy of support and celebration, regardless of what one hateful law might claim. We have decided to take a stand for equality, and hoping that our government and the laws of this country will soon catch up with us.

Standing in front of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial on the National Mall with the dome of Capitol Hill behind us, Daniel and I exchanged vows. Although our families could not join us on our wedding day, our hearts were filled with a sense of joy that we will never forget. It became clear at that moment that we were not only coming together in union as a couple but also marking an important time in American history. Before the ceremony, I looked up at the monument of Ulysses S. Grant and recalled his fight for civil rights.  On our wedding day we joined the great American fight for civil liberty. We knew that the road to equality was going to be a long one and we knew that what lay ahead would be very challenging but we took comfort in knowing that we were not alone in this struggle for equality and that our voices would be heard.

Just Married

Sadly, it only took a few weeks into our marriage to see firsthand the damaging consequences of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act,” the law that denies the existence of our marriage, but defends no one. In the midst of the excitement of being newlyweds, we received news that Daniel’s grandfather had suddenly passed away. I will never forget holding Daniel’s hand as he spoke to his grandmother and apologized for not being able to be by her side to console her. I remember the guilt in his voice as he spoke to his father and mother. My heart was broken for my husband and there was nothing I could do to make it better. He could not be in Mexico with his family only because the U.S. government refused to recognize him as my husband. How can we explain to his family in Monterrey that he cannot be there because of the “Defense of Marriage Act”? My desperation then turned to anger when I thought about how a heterosexual couple would not even have to worry about that kind of a nightmarish scenario. Though we thought we were prepared for the struggles awaiting us as a binational couple, nothing can ever prepare you when you are faced with such tragedies.

Moving forward, we continue to experience daily reminders that we are second class citizens. Because our marriage is not recognized by the federal government I can’t sponsor Daniel and he cannot obtain a work permit, a driver’s license or even medical insurance. Because of DOMA we cannot plan the future that so many married couples get to create for themselves.

At this point in time, our future is a dream that we have to fight for. Our love should not be seen as any less than my heterosexual friends’ love or than my parents’ love for each other. Our love is just as true and just as important as the love between our President and his wife. Celebrities can marry and then be divorced within weeks and no one blinks an eye. Yet because we are simply gay we are told that our love is not equal, that our love is not real, that our love is not worthy of protection.

We hope that by sharing our story, other gay and lesbian couples in the broader LGBT community will relate and feel empowered to stand united to make America better not only for us, but for generations that will follow. We hope that our children and grandchildren can live in a world free of discrimination where love is equal and not illegal — where human rights cannot be denied by a majority vote.

This summer we joined The DOMA Project to be a part of a campaign to stop deportations, separations, and exile of gay and lesbian binational couples like us. We also made the decision to file for a green card on the basis of our marriage. We will join the many other couples who have formed a national advocacy campaign for “abeyance” to ask the Obama administration to put our green card case on hold, and not to deny it. We need our case to be put on hold so that Daniel can stay and work in the United States legally. We will not allow the Obama administration to simply point to the fact that DOMA is the law of the land. We will demand to be treated as the equal persons that we are. We will demand that our love be respected and honored, just as we cherish it.

© The DOMA Project

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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.