Op-ed: Don't Tear This Septuagenarian Lesbian Couple Apart

By Brynn Gelbard and Lavi Soloway

Originally published on Advocate.com February 14 2013 7:00 AM ET

(This video is part of the series 'Love Stories: Binational Couples on the Front Lines Against DOMA,' produced by The DOMA Project and The DeVote Campaign.)

It’s August 3, 2012, and people are gathering for a wedding in the northern seaport town of Findhorn, Scotland. Propped up on a chair in the front row amid a slew of mingling guests is an iPad bearing the smiling faces of Mum 1 and Mom 2. It’s not because of an illness or the expense of overseas travel that they are attending their son and future daughter-in-law’s big day via Skype from their living room thousands of miles away in San Jose, Calif. It’s because if Mum 1 — Karin, a U.K. citizen — leaves the United States, she will be barred for at least a decade from reentering this country and returning to the home she shares with her American wife, Judy — a.k.a. Mom 2.  

Karin is 73 years old, born in Germany during World War II (when birth certificates were still emblazoned with swastikas!). Being prohibited from going home for 10 years is not a risk she can take, even if it means missing her son’s wedding. If Judy could have successfully sponsored her for a green card, they would certainly be present to celebrate with family and friends, who each take turns visiting the iPad to say congratulations before taking their seats. But she can’t. The Defense of Marriage Act only recognizes opposite-sex marriages for all federal matters including immigration, so Judy and Karin are stuck in California, unable to travel internationally.

Karin and Judy are two of approximately 35,000 binational same-sex couples living in America. They met online in a lesbian chat room nearly a decade ago. It was their first face-to-face date to a PFLAG dance that sealed the seal. On Valentine’s Day, 2007, they became domestic partners, and in March 2011 they married in snowy Vermont before a justice of the peace and the staff of their bed-and-breakfast, who were so moved watching these gushing grannies tie the knot that they bought them flowers and champagne and treated them to dinner at the most romantic restaurant in town.

When Judy and Karin returned to Northern California, on cloud nine after their whirlwind wedding adventure, they were not content to sit idly by while the tide of acceptance and equality slowly gravitated in their favor. President Obama had only just announced that his administration would no longer defend DOMA in court because he determined it to be unconstitutional. With that being the case, gay and lesbian Americans should have become eligible to petition for green cards for their foreign-born spouses. The White House made no provisions to ensure that this was possible, however, and has continued to enforce DOMA. As retirees whose simple wish is to enjoy their golden years together without fear of being torn apart or having to expatriate, Judy and Karin began publicizing the real-life struggles of same-sex binational couples who are fighting for the right to be together in this country and who need the president to protect them now.

They also joined the DOMA Project and became one of the first legally married same-sex, binational couples to hold the president to his word by applying for a green card. Unlike many other gay and lesbian spouses, whose petitions are still often flat-out denied, Judy and Karin were granted a green card interview, where they presented evidence of their genuine, long-standing relationship, just as any opposite-sex binational couple gets the opportunity to do. The immigration officer was very supportive and complimentary of their more-than-ample proof. But without direct orders from the president, and with DOMA still in place, their green card petition could not be approved. Instead, their case was held for further review while the government considered their request not to decide their petition until the Supreme Court or Congress determines the fate of DOMA.

For as long as Judy’s application for Karin is on hold, Karin can legally remain in the United States, but she is a prisoner here, unable to leave the country without likely being barred from returning. And this is why it was impossible for them to attend Michael and Shirley’s Scottish wedding.

The bride and groom, of course, understood and are so proud of Mum 1 and Mom 2 for all the work they’ve done and the sacrifices they’ve made while fighting for equality. Still, they think it’s absurd that such an inhumane law remains on the books in America, of all places. They think it’s outrageous that because of DOMA, Karin was detained in an immigration cell after flying into San Francisco International Airport, where she was interrogated for hours without water or the ability to make a phone call while Judy waited, terrified, not knowing what was happening to her wife. And they think it’s unfair that Judy then had to take early retirement to ensure that she and Karin could be together wherever they were, especially after immigration officials warned Karin that she was visiting this country too often and that she would have to leave indefinitely.  

So often, the marriage equality movement focuses on paving the way for loving spouses who have their whole lives ahead of them. On this Valentine’s Day, which is also the anniversary of Judy and Karin’s domestic partnership, we are reminded that couples of all backgrounds and ages as well as their extended families are directly affected by DOMA’s discriminatory and destructive consequences and will continue to be until this unjust law is overturned. And when it is, it will be fair to say that one of the true inspirations for its demise were a couple of rambunctious grannies — or, as Judy lovingly says, “Golden Girls” — who made use of retirement by relentlessly fighting for equality. 

BRYNN GELBARD, a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker, started The DeVote Campaign in 2010 after having to cancel her wedding because of the passing of Proposition 8. You can follow her on Twitter @BrynnGelbard.

LAVI SOLOWAY, with his law partner, Noemi Masliah, launched The DOMA Project, a campaign to stop the deportations, separations and exile of binational lesbian and gay couples, in 2010. Keep up with The DOMA Project on Facebook & Twitter @GayBinationals.

JUDY RICKARD is the author of Torn Apart: United by Love, Divided by Law, 2011, Findhorn Press.