Monday, August 1, 2011

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 And until the Defense of Marriage Act has been repealed or struck down, Johnny will be prevented from petitioning for a "green card" for his husband.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.

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