Twice in our lives, we’ve quit our jobs and travelled around the world for a year with whatever we could carry on our backs. So we love this year’s parade theme: Color Our World with Pride. After San Francisco Pride, we will be headed to Okinawa, Japan, to participate in the Pink Dot Okinawa pride events and speak at the very first Okinawa marriage equality rally, to be held in the center of the island’s largest city.
In Japan, we will also continue our collaboration with Japanese LGBT activists in Tokyo and Osaka. Recently, Akie Abe, the Japanese First Lady, rode in the Tokyo Pride Parade accompanied by a fabulous drag queen, and proclaimed: “I want to help build a society where anyone can lead happy, contented lives without facing discrimination.”
Across two oceans, Luxembourg Pride will celebrate the tiny country’s giant news that earlier this month it became the 19th country with marriage equality. The fact that Luxembourg’s openly gay Prime Minister Xavier Battel will implement the law makes the landslide 56-4 vote in the Chamber of Deputies all the sweeter. And as soccer fans around the globe follow the World Cup this summer, we take pride that the host country Brazil, a nation of 200 million people, boasts marriage equality. Indeed, last December the Rio de Janeiro Superior Court of Justice conducted the world’s largest LGBT wedding ever, in which 130 couples tied the knot.
However, in other parts of the world, LGBT people are marching for their basic human rights and freedom. In India, Mumbai’s Pride Parade this February drew a record crowd gathering to protest the Indian Supreme Court’s upholding “Section 377,” a British colonial era law that criminalized sexual activity of LGBT people. The Indian Supreme Court’s decision has galvanized many Indian LGBT people and allies to stand up and fight back. In a rare move, the Indian Supreme Court has agreed to rehear the case.
Sadly, there will be no pride parades this summer in many parts of the globe where LGBT people are struggling simply to survive. In nine countries, LGBT sexual activity is punishable by death. One image that remains emblazoned on our minds is a 2010 photograph of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, who were arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison in the East African nation of Malawi for being gay and announcing their engagement to be married. The photo shows Steven and Tiwonge—alone and handcuffed together in the back of pick-up truck—being hauled off to jail, surrounded by a mocking and jeering crowd. We will hold their image in our minds as we ride down Market Street, celebrating the one-year anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s overturning DOMA and Prop 8, this past year’s historic string of marriage equality victories, and the wonderful degree of freedom we have attained in San Francisco.
We must create global collaboration and community to truly color the world with rainbow pride. Perhaps no country speaks better of the potential of such collaboration than South Africa. In 2006, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to gain marriage equality—before every other state in the United States except Massachusetts—thanks to specific sexual orientation protection in their constitution. Two years ago, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg praised the South African Constitution—a true product of international collaboration—as “a fundamental instrument of government that embrace(s) basic human rights,” and calling it “a great piece of work that was done.” This year’s Pride celebrations remind us that we have much more great work to do together.
By MEUSA National Media Director Stuart Gaffney and MEUSA Director of Legal & Policy John Lewis
This article originally appeared in SF Bay Times, June 26, 2014: http://sfbaytimes.com/color-our-world-with-rainbow-pride/ A photo of Gaffney and Lewis also served as the cover for that issue.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) may have met its demise last June but same-sex binational couples living abroad are still waiting for the federal government to recognize their marriages and allow them to return to America. Melanie Servetas and Claudia Amaral, a married, same-sex, binational couple living in exile in Amaral’s home country of Brazil, are one of the tens of thousands of couples who have found themselves caught in the backlog of cases waiting to be approved for an American green card.
Servetas and Amaral began their relationship in 2009 after meeting through an online dating service. Servetas held a high level position as a Senior Vice President with Wells Fargo in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Amaral was a successful IT business owner in Brazil. Within the next few months, the couple quickly found out about America’s unjust immigration laws and sought out options seeking a way they could be united. “After about six months, I decided to come here to Rio for a visit,” Servetas said. “After my trip here, I decided there was no way we could go on with our lives living apart.” Servetas gave up her American home and job and re-located to Brazil, intending to bring Amaral back to the U.S. with her should that ever become possible. In Rio de Janeiro, on June 26, 2013, the couple followed the news as the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA, the federal law forbidding federal recognition of same-sex marriages. As soon as the ruling was public, the couple rushed to marry. They rejoiced at the thought of returning together to the United States. “Unbelievable joy that we could finally come home, sadness that we were still in Brazil, disbelief that we still have such a long way to go for equality and proud to be even a small part of a fight like this for equality” explained Melanie Servetas regarding her initial emotions after the repeal of DOMA.
Due to DOMA restrictions, American citizens in same-sex binational relationships were previously denied the right to sponsor their foreign-born partners for the purpose of immigration. Once DOMA was repealed, immigration opportunities became available to all same-sex binational couples. However, even during this time of celebration, the process of applying for a green card as a same-sex couple caused Servetas and Amaral to feel nervous and unsure of the future.
Despite the DOMA ruling and the resulting change in U.S. immigration law, hardships remain for the couple. Shortly after marrying, the couple submitted Amaral’s green card application with the assistance of their attorney, Regina Jefferies. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) initial approval process can take up to seven months. Once approved, the application gets transferred to the Department of State’s National Visa Center (NVC) for further review.
“We are still waiting for USCIS to notify the National Visa Center that their petition has been approved,” Jefferies said. “Once the petition gets transferred to the NVC, they request additional information. They do some pre-processing for the consulate. Once that information is there, it takes them another 30 business days to review. The NVC will complete their initial processing and forward the entire file out to the consulate in Rio.”
The procedure for applying for a green card for those couples who have been forced to live abroad in order to be together is an exhaustive and lengthy process. “We’ve been stuck, on hold in the process for almost 60 days now. USCIS has sent our approved petition to the NVC but the NVC has not officially confirmed they have received it for the next steps,” said Servetas.
After already enduring significant emotional and financial suffering, the waiting has made the situation almost unbearable. But Servetas and Amaral are committed to following through with the legal process so that they can return to America, despite the extreme burdens the system has placed on them. “The very long delays to process applications for people who have already suffered discrimination and hardships totally frustrate us,” said Servetas. “It seems wrong that our Consular processing is taking so much longer than that of people who were able to apply to the USCIS because they didn’t have to leave the US in order to stay together. I can’t believe we are still so many months away from even having our consular interview.”
Time is of the essence for the couple as critical family matters have arisen in America. The need for the couple to return to the United States in the near future has become even more pressing. “I am very worried because my family in the U.S. urgently needs our assistance to care for an ill family member and we haven’t been able to get a response on our request to expedite,” said Servetas.
Couples like Servetas and Amaral are running out of time and money as the United States continues infighting over immigration reform. The need for comprehensive immigration reform seems clearer than ever with so many couples finding themselves locked into a system bound by massive red tape and bureaucracy.
“The government has ‘safe traveler’ global entry programs -- certainly something similar could be applied in order to let us come into the U.S. We’d be able to begin to work at putting our lives back together while we wait out the approval process,” said Servetas. “Also, those cases being handled abroad through the consulates should be allowed to bypass the USCIS portion and apply directly to the consular post for approval. Handing these files back and forth, where they end up just sitting without review for months on end, seems punitive to a population like us who have already suffered discrimination. Just allow consular processing to be a direct procedure with the State Department.”
What couples like Servetas and Amaral have already endured in their attempts to be together should be considered astonishing. In America, we continue to fight for equality. But many injustices continue as the plight of those who have had to choose between love and country are forced to pay the penalty of previous discriminatory laws. By no means do Servetas and Amaral minimize the struggle that same-sex binational couples who reside in America face. They only want to let people know that for those who have been exiled by love, trying to come home is proving to be just as difficult as leaving was. Servetas and Amaral are still waiting to move forward with their application process and are committed to continue the fight against America’s broken immigration system.
By Gina Caprio