Moving Beyond Marriage Equality

A couple of days ago, my husband and I were interviewed by an immigration adjudicator. The gentleman deemed our relationship legit, approved us on the spot, and told us to expect a green card in the mail. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling upending Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), he treated our marriage just like any other. My spouse and I are very fortunate.

Not all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) immigrants are as fortunate, however. The Williams Institute estimates that about 7,000 gay couples are both non-citizens, and that approximately 267,000 undocumented immigrants identify as LGBT. These individuals do not benefit from the Supreme Court’s ruling, but they will benefit from comprehensive immigration reform. A path to legalization will free them from the shadows to become more productive, engaged, and committed members of our society.

On Thursday, the president once again called for passage of immigration reform. He rightfully argues that fixing our immigration system is good for our economy and our national security, and, ultimately, for all of us.

“It doesn’t make sense to have 11 million people who are in this country illegally without any incentive or any way for them to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, meet their responsibilities and permit their families then to move ahead,” President Obama said. “It’s not smart. It’s not fair. It doesn’t make sense.”

As we celebrate breathtaking progress on the marriage equality front, we need to be mindful that other pressing issues beset our community. We can be fired in 29 states for being ourselves. Our transgender sisters and brothers are not welcome in the military. We suffer poverty more than straight people, especially those of us who are of color. And too many in our community are further marginalized by their immigration status. Just as we rallied behind the freedom to marry, let us rally behind the freedom to live, love, and work in this country of immigrants.

Originally posted on the Huffington Post.

DOMA and the States: What are the Next Strategic Steps for LGBT Groups?


June 26, 2013; ABC News

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) organizations are celebrating Wednesday’s Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8, major victories in the fight for civil rights. The Court overturned DOMA’s Article 3, which prohibited the U.S. government from recognizing legal marriages of gay women and men and denied gay married couples over 1,100 benefits enjoyed by their straight counterparts. The Supreme Court justices also let stand a lower court ruling that struck down Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that defined marriage as between one woman and one man.

Because of DOMA, gay U.S. citizens were not able to petition for green cards for their foreign-born spouses. Rachel B. Tiven, Executive Director of Immigration Equality, said, “Many of our families have waited years, and in some cases decades, for the green card they need to keep their families together. Couples forced into exile will be coming home soon. Americans separated from their spouses are now able to prepare for their reunion. Today’s ruling is literally a life-changing one for those who have suffered under DOMA and our discriminatory immigration laws.”

“Antiquated laws like Proposition 8 and DOMA disproportionately harm LGBT people of color, and ultimately our nation,” said Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Black Justice Coalition, in a statement released after the rulings were announced. “Today is a victorious day for our community, our families, and our love.”

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, also applauded the development, but pointed out “there’s much work ahead of us to ensure that every couple can fully enjoy the recognition Justice Kennedy so eloquently wrote about in the majority opinion in Windsor.”

Although gay married couples are now entitled to federal benefits, access can be an issue in states that do not have marriage equality. As NPR’s Liz Halloran explains, “Some federal agencies adhere to what is known as a ‘place of celebration’ standard. That means no matter where a couple is legally married anywhere in the world, the union is recognized for the purpose of federal benefits. But other agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration, hew to a ‘place of residence’ standard. Marriage has to be recognized in the place the couple is living for them to be eligible for those federal spousal benefits.”

“We have an obligation to ensure every same-sex couple—whether they live in Arkansas or New York, Kansas or California, can share in today’s emotional and deserved victory,” said Griffin. “We have momentum on our side, and it’s only a matter of time until the remaining parts of DOMA are entirely repealed.”

LGBT groups are already looking ahead at what remains to be done. Aside from fully getting rid of DOMA and establishing marriage equality in all states, advocacy groups are also working at addressing the many other issues faced by the LGBT community, such as workplace discrimination, violence, and the marginalization of queer people of color.

Originally posted on Nonprofit Quarterly

What the DOMA Ruling Means for Gay Binational Couples


Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

After wrestling with the immigration system for 23 years, just like that, I have a clear path to citizenship, thanks to nine very human and very fallible Supreme Court justices. By ruling DOMA’s section 3 unconstitutional, legal marriages of lesbians and gays in 12 states and the District of Columbia are now recognized by the federal government. My husband can finally petition for a green card for me, just like any other American citizen or permanent resident. I am relieved, grateful, and more optimistic than ever about my family’s future in the country we love and call home.

But this is just the beginning, and there are more hurdles to overcome. We have to convince the U.S. government that ours is a marriage of love and commitment, not convenience, in order to get a provisional green card. After a couple of years, I can apply for a permanent green card. Finally, after a couple more years, I can apply for citizenship. In short, I will finally be a U.S. citizen after having been here close to three decades.

More importantly, the fight for civil rights continues for the LGBT community and its allies. Gay women and men are denied the freedom to marry in most states. Legally married lesbian and gay couples living in states that do not recognize same-gender marriages will continue to be denied state privileges and benefits bestowed straight couples. We can still be fired for who we are in a majority of states. Queer people of color are kept at the social, economic, and political margins.

Let us pause to celebrate, but tomorrow let us gird ourselves for the struggle that lies ahead.

Originally posted on the Huffington Post.

LGBT Advocates: Tide Turners Extraordinaire


March 27, 2013; Source: The Atlantic

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) civil rights group, crows, “Americans Agree: It’s Time to Strike Down DOMA.” And HRC, along with its allies and other advocates in the broader LGBT community do have cause to celebrate.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments for and against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the brazenly discriminatory statute signed into law by President Bill Clinton. There appears to be consensus among the pundit class that the Supremes will most likely strike down Section 3 of DOMA, which precludes federal recognition of gay marriages and as such, denies legally married lesbian and gay couples the more than 1,100 federal benefits, rights, and privileges enjoyed by straight married couples. If the prognosticators are correct, then same-gender married couples in nine states and the District of Columbia, where marriage equality has been established, will finally be treated equally under U.S. law.

Commentators are having a harder time divining the tea leaves from the other marriage equality case heard by the Supreme Court. On Tuesday, opponents and proponents of California’s Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to ban same-gender marriage, presented their arguments. The justices’ reactions and questions didn’t give a clear signal on how they would rule on the constitutionality of Proposition 8 and, by extension, the right of gay people to marry.

We’ll learn the outcome of both cases come June, but no matter the outcome, the gay rights movement and gay couples in particular have, in some sense, already won. Support for marriage equality is at an all-time high, especially among young Americans, which only augurs a brighter and more equal future for the LGBT community. Leaders of both parties are advocating for the freedom to marry for all. From our vantage point, it appears the tide has turned and there’s no use fighting it. And why would anyone, anyway? 

Originally posted on Nonprofit Quarterly’s Nonprofit Newswire.

The Cost of Being Gay and Married


With my husband at the Supreme Court rally for marriage equality.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in two landmark gay rights cases. At issue in Hollingsworth v. Perry is the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 banning same-gender marriage, while in United States v. Windsor, at issue is whether Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law for all citizens.

DOMA’s Section 3 limits marriages to those between a woman and a man. This means that legally married lesbians and gays are denied the 1,138 federal benefits, rights, and privileges enjoyed by married couples who happen to be of different genders. To date, marriage equality has been achieved in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington, the Coquille Tribe (Oregon), the Suquamish Tribe (Washington), and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (Michigan), but legally married lesbian and gay couples in these states and jurisdictions are not treated equally under federal law.

In 2009, the Tax Policy Center and the Williams Institute held a panel discussion called “The Higher Cost of Being Gay: Life, Death, and Taxes.” As Howard Gleckman wrote,

when it comes to federal taxes the question is not whether you are gay or straight, but whether or not you are married. Depending on the relative income of each spouse, married couples either enjoy a marriage bonus or suffer a marriage penalty. Of course, heterosexuals can choose to marry or not and live with the tax consequences. Gays and lesbians have no such option. Even though a handful of states now recognize gay marriage, for federal tax purposes their marital status is irrelevant.

In short, it costs to be born and married gay. And it’s not just the tax code. My husband and I, for instance, are denied Social Security, inheritance (i.e., estate tax and retirement savings), and health care benefits taken for granted by our straight counterparts. A few years back, the New York Times estimated the lifetime penalty for a gay couple. In the best case scenario, it would be about $30,000. In the worst case, well over $200,000. Moreover, my American spouse is unable to sponsor me, a foreign-born individual, for immigration purposes.

The list goes on but at the end of the day, what is being argued before the Supreme Court is whether all citizens should be treated equally and have the freedom to marry whom they love.

An abridged version is posted on Urban Institute’s MetroTrends blog.

Will LGBT Binational Couples Be Included in Immigration Reform?


February 15, 2013; SourceMetro Weekly

Last week, two bills that address the plight of gay binational couples were introduced in Congress. Gay U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, unlike their straight peers, are not able to sponsor spouses or partners for green cards because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Family Equality Council, an organization that represents lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) parents and their children, points out that there are more than 36,000 binational couples in the country, about half of whom are raising children. These families run the risk of being torn apart by limited immigration options under the current system.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) announced that they would reintroduce the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which seeks to eliminate the discrimination suffered by LGBT families under immigration law. The following day, Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) reintroduced the Reuniting Families Act (RFA), which aims to shorten the long wait times for family-sponsored visas and also allows gay Americans to sponsor their foreign-born partners.

“Our family-based immigration system has not been updated in 20 years, separating spouses, children and their parents, who have played by the rules for years,” Honda said in a statement. “My proposed legislation is in line with American family values and with our need to grow our economy and save taxpayer money. American workers with families by their side are happier, healthier and more able to succeed than those distanced from loved ones for years on end. Our country deserves an immigration system that honors and supports key family values, like keeping families intact.”

“Family is the universal source of success and happiness for people of all faiths, nationalities, and sexual orientations,” said Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBT immigrants. “With family by your side, every American and every newcomer can work hard, study, and achieve.”

It is highly unlikely that either legislation will gain enough support to pass through both chambers of Congress. Instead, the best solution for LGBT immigrant families might be their inclusion in any comprehensive immigration bill. President Barack Obama’s immigration plan includes LGBT families, but the Senate’s bipartisan plan does not.

Many conservatives have expressed opposition to any law that would make allowances for gay binational couples and their families. It remains to be seen whether there may be enough equality-minded lawmakers in Congress to stand up for the rights of LGBT immigrant families.

Originally posted on Nonprofit Quarterly Nonprofit Newswire

As Supreme Court to Take up Gay Marriage, Groups Rally Troops


December 8, 2012; Source: Reuters

The Supreme Court announced Friday that it will review two cases involving discrimination against same-gender couples. As early as March, the court will hear arguments for and against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which only recognizes heterosexual couples, thereby denying federal benefits to legally married lesbian and gay couples. The justices will also weigh in on California’s Proposition 8, which narrowly passed by ballot initiative in 2008 and denies gay and lesbian Californians the same right to marriage that opposite-gender couples enjoy.

It didn’t take long for advocacy groups to send out appeals and calls for action through e-mail blasts and websites. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) membership organization, immediately sent an e-mail on behalf of its president, Chad Griffin. Griffin hails the Supreme Court’s decision to take up DOMA and Proposition 8 and stresses that “a win in either of these cases would mark an incredible, decisive point in this movement’s history.” He warns, however, that “extreme right-wing leaders are going to immediately rally their base” and claim that “the Court can’t outpace public opinion.” He thus asks people to sign a petition reminding opponents that a majority of Americans now support marriage equality.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a LGBT civil rights group, also cautions supporters that “opponents are still as determined to keep us down” and “will continue to fight against our freedom to marry in the courts, oppose efforts in the legislative branch to repeal the so-called ‘Defense of Marriage Act’” in order “to reverse many of the gains we have worked so hard to achieve over the past few years.” She promises that her organization is “as determined as ever to fight for LGBT equality” and requests donations. Kevin Cathcart, executive of Lambda Legal, the oldest legal LGBT organization, in turn reminds e-mail recipients that this latest development “doesn’t just happen” and that it is “the result of years of strategic, impact litigation.” He asks for support to help “continue the fight.”

The American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), the sole sponsor of the challenge to Proposition 8, blogged their appeal. The nonprofit had brought together Theodore Olson and David Boies, adversaries in the historic Bush v. Gore case that decided the 2000 presidential election, to convince the Supreme Court justices of the unconstitutionality of the ballot proposition. Arguing that their legal team has “successfully argued our case in Federal District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, showing that Prop. 8 violates basic constitutional principles,” they “will defend those victories before the highest court in the nation” and also request support in reaching their fundraising goal.

This movement is now expert at keeping its troops rallied and its ability to mobilize quickly is impressive.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit advocacy group leading the opposition to marriage equality, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), also responded swiftly to the news. The group issued a press release on Friday in which it applauded the Supreme Court for taking up the Proposition 8 question and predicted that the high court will uphold the California law. It also notes that NOM “was the largest contributor to qualifying Proposition 8 to the ballot and has been a major supporter of legal efforts to uphold it.”

Originally posted on Nonprofit Quarterly Nonprofit Newswire, December 10, 2012.

Discretion Policy on Deportations of Gay Immigrant Spouses Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Janet Napolitano has put into writing what had been verbally promised by DHS. (Photo: Flickr/americanprogress)

Last week, a letter from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano had some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) and immigrant activists celebrating. Napolitano put into writing what had been verbally promised by DHS: gay binational couples are recognized like any other family and foreign-born spouses will not be deported under a directive issued last year.

The directive, known as the Morton Memo, gives Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel leeway—prosecutorial discretion—in deciding which immigrants get reprieve from deportation. These include those who have lived in the U.S. since childhood, minors, the elderly, victims of serious crimes, veterans and members of the armed services, people with serious disabilities or health problems, and individuals with close family ties (such as marriage to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident).

LGBT binational families should be able to breathe easy under this mandate. Advocates have been pushing for clearer guidelines from day one, seeking confirmation that discretion would apply to lesbians and gays. Immigration is a federal matter, and legal same-gender marriages and civil unions are not recognized by the U.S. government due to the odious and discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Spurred by a letter from 84 members of Congress, Napolitano finally affirmed in writing that gay families are to be treated no differently.

“In an effort to make clear the definition of the phrase ‘family relationships,’ I have directed ICE to disseminate written guidance to the field that the interpretation of the phrase ‘family relationships’ includes long-term, same-sex partners,” Napolitano wrote.

“This is a huge step forward,” said Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, the leading advocate for LGBT immigrants and refugees. “Until now, LGBT families and their lawyers had nothing to rely on but an oral promise that prosecutorial discretion would include all families. Today, DHS has responded to Congress and made that promise real. The Administration’s written guidance will help families facing separation and the field officers who are reviewing their cases.”

While, no doubt, this spells relief for some binational couples, the fact of the matter is that this is not progress, much less a real solution to a problem which shouldn’t exist in the first place.

Foreign-born spouses who are magnanimously granted reprieve by the administration remain in legal limbo and without status, unable to work or go anywhere outside the contiguous states. Gay Americans are still unable to petition their loved ones for permanent residency unlike their straight counterparts.

And what happens under an anti-LGBT Romney White House? I’m willing to bet that this directive goes out the window.

What is needed to address the unfair treatment and tenuous existence of LGBT binational families is the repeal of DOMA. Short of that, we need legislation which grants the same federal benefits enjoyed by straight couples to legally married gay binational couples. The harsh reality of partisan politics in both the Supreme Court and Congress makes neither likely to happen.

Now, if President Obama is re-elected however, he can issue an executive order recognizing legally married same-gender couples, granting them immigration and other benefits. Judging from the past four years though, the chances of this happening are slim to none.

Sorry for being such a killjoy.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, October 5, 2012. Also posted on the Huffington Post, October 8, 2012.

That’s My Issue: Binationals and Gay Marriage

that's my issue square logo

On March 9, 2010, lesbian and gay couples were finally able to legally wed in the District of Columbia. On April 5, John and I finally got married, eleven and a half years after we moved in together.

Friends and family were happy for us. Many were relieved. Our “problem” was solved.

Like most immigrants, I came to the United States with my American dream. I was going to work hard, improve my lot, and give back. I was going to live openly and with integrity. I was also going to fall in love, settle down, and have my own family.

For the most part, I have been fortunate and have done okay. I am working part-time while completing a doctoral degree. I volunteer and help out when I can. I am doing what I love and believe that in my small way I am making a difference. Best of all, I have fallen in love, settled down, and started a family with someone whom I share the same faith and core values.

Until we had the freedom to marry, John and I did our best to get whatever legal protections were doled out to same-gender couples. While living in New York, we registered as domestic partners. Upon relocating to Washington, we again signed up as domestic partners and eventually got a marriage license.

Although no one can deny the fact that we are a married couple, the hard and unfair reality is that our marriage license isn’t worth much outside the District. Because of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, which precludes the U.S. government from recognizing lesbian and gay unions, we and thousands of other committed couples are denied over 1,100 benefits and privileges blessed upon straight couples. Only because of whom we love.

Even though we have been paying our taxes and contributing to Social Security, neither of us will be entitled to the other’s benefits. Anything we give or bequeath each other – property, money, and other material possessions – will be taxed. The list goes on.

My mother was among those who thought my marriage to John solved the problem. When I shared the news, she congratulated us and said “Great, so he should be able to sponsor you.”

Thanks to the vagaries of our immigration system, I still do not have a green card, a Damocles sword that has hung over our heads since we committed to each other fourteen years ago.  I may consider the United States my home, having lived here legally for over two decades, and in my heart feel American, but at the end of the day I am still technically a foreign visitor, a foreign student.

I explained to my mom that because immigration is a federal matter, John will not be able to sponsor me for legal permanent residency. If we were a straight couple however, I’d have a green card by now. In the meantime, the choice we face is to find some way to keep me here legally or leave friends, family, and country we love once I get my Ph.D.

Originally posted on WNYC It’s A Free Country, August 20, 2012.

The U.S. Recognizes Straight Binational Marriages with Transgender Spouses

Eternal Love by Holding Hands

Bride and groom (Photo: Frozen Canuck)

The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a memorandum last week that updates the Adjudicator’s Field Manual, a guide binding all agency staff overseeing immigration procedures. It spells out policy around immigration documents issued and marriage benefits given to transgender individuals. The interim memo, released for comment from stakeholders, is in effect until further notice from USCIS.

The directive is welcome news for the transgender community and its allies.

USCIS will now issue immigration documents that reflect an individual’s gender identity, so long as the individual presents “an amended birth certificate, passport, or court order recognizing their new gender; or medical certification of the change in gender from a licensed physician.” The memo points out that these criteria are “based on standards and recommendations of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health who are recognized as the authority in this field by the American Medical Association.”

USCIS will also approve green-card petitions by American citizens or permanent residents for their spouses if a petitioner establishes that the transgender individual has legally changed their gender and subsequently married an individual of the other gender; that the marriage is recognized as a heterosexual marriage under the law where the union took place; and that the law where the marriage took place does not bar unions between transgender individuals and persons of the other gender.

The directive explicitly says that gender-reassignment surgery “is not required in order for USCIS to approve” petitions “unless the law of the place of marriage clearly requires sex reassignment surgery in order to accomplish a change in legal gender.”

The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and Immigration Equality, advocates for transgender rights, applauded the development. The organizations have been working in tandem to advance these urgently needed policies, part of a comprehensive agenda for the fair treatment of transgender immigrants.

“Today’s announcement is another example of the Obama Administration’s long-term commitment to equality,” NCTE Policy Counsel Harper Jean Tobin said Friday. “These revisions mean that trans people and their families can obtain accurate identification while maintaining their privacy. It’ll also reduce bureaucratic delays, intrusive questions, and wrongful denials of immigration benefits.”

“This Guidance is an important step forward for transgender immigrants and their families,” added Victoria Neilson, Legal Director for Immigration Equality. “It brings USCIS in line with DOS [the Department of State] in its guidance for updating gender markers on identity documents — no longer requiring any specific surgery, but instead allowing a doctor to certify the individual’s gender.” She added, “The memo affirms existing law and precedents, and recognizes that if a marriage is considered valid and opposite sex under state law, it is valid for immigration purposes.”

This is certainly a step in the right direction, and the administration should be given credit for taking this move, but it leaves gay binational married couples, who are not afforded immigration benefits because of the Defense of Marriage (DOMA), out in the cold. Some of these couples also include a spouse who is transgender.

Tobin acknowledges the long path ahead: “While these two revisions aid some trans immigrants and their U.S. citizen spouses, and vice-versa, the revisions only highlight the need to eliminate the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act.”

Originally posted on the Huffington Post, WNYC’s It’s A Free Country, and Feet in 2 Worlds, April 16, 2012.