President Obama: “Don’t Let DOMA Destroy Our Marriage.” Gay Veteran Files Green Card Case For His British Husband After 11 Years Together, Fighting for Their Future

By the time I reached my mid 50s, I had begun to let go the hope of finding a life partner. Maybe it was a combination of society’s views of gays, combined with the scars of a Catholic upbringing, that left me feeling I did not deserve what most people had. All that changed when Shaun entered my life.

We met online, and at first it was just the occasional chat.  He was in England and I was in California, so we had something of a geographical and time zone challenge. After a while, I found myself looking forward to coming home from work to see if he was online. A strong bond of friendship quickly formed. Shaun talked to me in a way I had not known with others. He was honest and very direct with his observations. Sometimes his words seemed too direct, later I understood that everything he said, came from his caring about me and wanting me to have a better life. I began to have feelings for him that I had never felt for another person. What makes this even more unique is that these feelings developed even before I ever saw his face, as this was before webcams or online photos where as commonplace as they are now. When Shaun sent me the first photo and I saw the image that went with the words, I was blown away! 

Six months after chatting, I learned that Shaun would be coming to Los Angeles to visit friends, who would go around the United States riding roller coasters.  Little did we know that we were going to set out on a decade long roller coaster ride of our own.

John and Shaun's First Photo Together, January 11, 2001

I was excited that Shaun was coming to Los Angeles, but my heart sank immediately when I learned that he would be so close, but that his itinerary did not leave time for us to meet. Then one evening the phone rang.  It was Shaun asking if I would like to join him and friends for lunch the next day. Before I knew it, I said YES! That day was one neither of us can forget. It was January 11, 2001. Shaun tells the story of how when he first saw me he was a little afraid, as I was bouncing up and down with excitement. If I was, it was nerves. In person he looked even better than his photos. As we ate lunch my hand began to tremble with joy. He reached over, took my hand and looking directly into my eyes, he whispering in his British accent, “It is OK, just relax”.

Our lunch went so well, that Shaun altered his plans and spent his final week with me. It was then that we knew that this was more than just friendship. We spent one of the best weeks of our lives together. Then we faced what would become a constant source of agony for us – the airport good-bye.

A few months later Shaun retuned for a month. We then committed as a couple and began to look for ways to stay together. I had no idea that would be near impossible.

 We tried everything from student visas to business visas. All required an investment of money neither of us had. We contacted our elected officials. Most just sent a standard reply, saying they could not help. I pushed harder and went to the office of my member of congress. One of her staff suggested that Shaun “find a woman to marry”, in order to get a green card. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign and even the American Civil Liberties Union just replied saying, “The time is not right for cases like yours.” Then for a year between 2002-2003 we opened our life to a documentary maker, who was making a film about binational couples. After completion they could not find a distributor. It was not seen as marketable. Our plight seemed hopeless.

For the next decade we lived what we called two half lives: one half together, and the other half alone. Shaun has always been employed by his family, so with their help and support he would spend three months in the U.S. and three months in the U.K. In 2002 Shaun was stopped on entry to the U.S. and detained. They questioned him for hours. They opened his case and just threw his clothes onto the floor as they searched it. One officer held up toiletries and other personal items, while a second laughed and made comments on what was in his case. Eventually he was allowed to stay for six weeks but told he would no longer be able to use a “visa waiver program” to visit. He was told that he must apply for an actual visitor’s visa at the U.S. Embassy in London. Shaun did as told, and he received the visa; but several more times he was detained – some times for as long as five hours. During the times he was questioned, I would be left waiting at arrivals, with no idea what was going on.

One time I was told by an airline representative that Shaun was going to be handcuffed, taken to a detention center and flown back to the U.K. the next day.

 Each time he was detained, Shaun cut back the time he would spend in the US. He would ask immigration, how long he could visit without it being a problem. He was told, “You are just coming here too often,” or “visit here less than expected.” He was never given a clear rule to follow. All the trauma of this had a serious affect on his health. He would sink into deep depressions as his time to leave me came closer. Then before he returned to the US, his fear of immigration would consume him to the point of not being able to eat or sleep. Each time he became convinced that he would be denied entry and banned from returning to the US for ten years. Twice a year, for ten years, he repeated this grueling routine. He would stand in a line, hoping that we would be allowed to continue our lives together. We were both all too aware that at any time, a U.S. Customs and Border Protections officer could destroy what we had worked so hard to build together.

We have had to hold our relationship together using webcams and phone calls. When we were apart, Shaun would wait up until past midnight his time, so we could chat for an hour or two when I got home from work. One of the hardest parts for us, has been when one of us is sick. During the times I was too sick to go to work, Shaun would spend all day on the phone with me. Then at night I would put the webcam on while I slept, and he would watch over me.

Shaun and John on their Wedding Day, January 11, 2012

As I have grown older, the health issues have become more serious. Just before Shaun was to return to the U.K. a year ago, I was given the news that I might have had prostate cancer – my PSA level was high. There was no way Shaun could stay with me. His visa was to expire and he had to leave. I once again took him to the airport and returned alone to our home, to our things, to the place we shared together for the last eleven years. Then I got a call saying the doctor had done a second PSA test and it was even higher than the first. I was facing cancer alone. I was facing possible surgery alone. I was facing a life crisis without my partner. There was no way Shaun could re-enter the US for a few months, or he would run the risk of being denied entry. I got so scared and angry I had a meltdown. I raged that this treatment was inhuman! I have worked all my life. I paid the same taxes as straight couples. I served four years in the military for my country. Why did I not deserve the right to have my partner at my side when I was sick? If not him, then who would be there to nurse me if I was ill? I sat down in the middle of the living room floor, with tears in my eyes. I was scared and my fright turned to anger, then my anger turned to determination. It was at that moment, the feelings I once had about not deserving what straight couples had, vanished. I deserve the same rights as they have!

John in the Navy in 1966

I was fortunate that my treatment did not involve surgery, but during that time one image kept coming into my mind. During the brief window in 2008 when California allowed gay couples to marry, Shaun and I had watched a wedding at the beach near our home. As the sunset touched the ocean, two young women with a small circle of friends, walked to the edge of the water. They stood there quietly exchanging vows as the light faded. When the darkness fell they walked hand in hand back to their house. It was simple and beautiful and I wanted that too! I wanted to have that right. I wanted to have all that Shaun and I have fought to keep together, sealed by marriage. I promised myself that if marriage returned to California, then finally we would have that too.

Sadly, by the end of 2011, marriage equality had not yet been restored to California and we were growing impatient.  In January 2012, Shaun and I would celebrate our 11th anniversary together as a couple, and I would retire after 50 years in the workforce. We wanted to celebrate these life milestones with something special. So on January 11 we flew to New York and were married. It meant more to both of us than we ever imagined. We are as proud of our marriage license, as if it were a diploma from an Ivy League college, because it was not something that came to us easily. It was all so special for us, that we did not think too much about the consequences that could result for us as married binational gay couple. We were soon to be reminded of that, however.

As we flew through Detroit on our way back to Los Angeles, we were sent as a couple to a TSA agent.  Sure, it was just a domestic flight but the TSA has broad power to question travelers and somehow they picked on us, two newlyweds heading home. What followed were a series of personal questions including, how long had we known each other? What was the nature of our relationship? How did we first meet? What were our plans together? As an American citizen, I have NEVER been questioned in that manner. It was intrusive and spoken with an intimidating tone. For the first time I saw a little of what Shaun has faced each time he entered the US.  Although we were not technically being interrogated by immigration officers, the worst fears ran through our mind. We both panicked, fearing that if they found our marriage license in our possessions Shaun may be sent to a detention center for displaying intent to remain in the United States while he was a visitor; we had read that had happened to others. The fear in Shaun’s eyes was so intense, that I made up my mind that this had to stop! We could no longer live this way.

As a married, gay binational couple, Shaun faced not only questions, but a strong chance of being denied entry when he was next to have to return to the US. That was the turning point. 

We joined Stop The Deportations-The DOMA Project so that we could join the fight to end deportations, separations and exile caused by the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act.”  We recently filed a marriage-based green card petition and will now fight to convince my own government not to deny our case, but to put a final decision on hold until DOMA is struck down by the courts.

I am proud to have lived to see my own President send out a public message to the isolated and vulnerable LGBT youth of America, assuring them that they are not alone and encouraging them that “it gets better.” Still, I wonder, Mr. President: what about me, what about the seniors, the vets, the married gay binational couples? And what about this veteran who proudly served his country during the Vietnam War?  How can it possibly be that I enlisted to do my duty and prepared to sacrifice everything for my country to defend the freedoms we so often take for granted, but my country now wants to destroy my marriage and tear my husband away from me?  If, Mr. President, you deport my partner, if you take away all that I have worked for my entire life, when I AM ALONE – what is your message for me? You can take action now to save us from this disaster. You, Mr. President, understand that years are precious for the gay seniors America?  You have spoken about “the fierce urgency of now.” I know you understand.  I need my President to take action. Your words are of tremendous inspiration, your decision not to defend DOMA in court is historical, but we need this administration’s direct intervention to prevent disaster from befalling our family.   The President has that power. I know my President believes this is wrong. He must act now to stop DOMA from destroying our families by directing the Immigration Service to stop denying our green card petitions.

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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.