Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who covers criminal justice, terrorism and the courts for WNYC. She found her way into public radio after practicing law for five years, and can definitely say that walking the streets of New York City with a microphone is a lot more fun than being holed up in the office writing letters to opposing counsel.
Many Same-Sex Couples Avoid Gay Marriages Over Legal, Personal Concerns
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Thousands of same-sex couples in New York State will be diving into wedding preparations in the months to come, but amid the historic celebrations there will also be another group: same-sex couples who are choosing not to get married. For them, there are plenty of good reasons – legal, financial and personal – they won't ever say "I do."
Many same-sex couples say they want to get married but can't because it could mean losing the person they love since New York's new same-sex marriage law does nothing to change federal law.
Under the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages, and legal experts say that creates a huge disparity in the immigration system.
"It is very unfair that for a different-sex couple, getting married can be the ticket to making sure that they can remain together here in this country. But for a same-sex couple, it can be the instrument of their separation," said Susan Sommer, senior counsel at Lambda Legal, a gay rights organization.
The Risk of an Immigration Penalty
Chris, who asked that his last name not be used, said his boyfriend from Spain — whom he calls "Milan" for the purposes of this article — has been staying in the U.S. on temporary visas, and immigration lawyers have advised the couple that getting married could endanger his eligibility for future visas because it suggests Milan intends to stay here permanently.
"That can jeopardize our situation completely," Chris said. "It may end our relationship, which I don't even want to think about it."
Chris, who was born in Poland and is a U.S. citizen, said he and Milan have been "playing games" with the Department of Homeland Security for seven years. Milan cannot get a green card so in order to see each other, he has applied for tourists visas, which gives the couple three months at a time in the U.S.
Milan even enrolled in school – plunking down $20,000 for tuition – just to get a student visa, which bought him two years that are on the brink of running out.
Chris said watching the news coverage of the legalization of gay marriage in New York has been bittersweet.
"I'm quite jealous. I'm quite jealous, and the truth is, I shouldn't be jealous," he said.
Other Legal Penalties of Gay Marriages
Many same-sex couples have contacted gay rights organization Lambda Legal to ask if getting married is a smart idea — and Sommer, senior counsel there, said it may not be the best choice for everyone.
Marriage could bungle attempts by a gay individual to adopt, Sommer said. Adoption agencies in countries such as Guatemala and China and states such as Virginia have denied adoptions to gay couples.
"It can be, ironically, easier for a single woman, say, to adopt a child in some jurisdictions than for two married, committed women to do so jointly," Sommer said.
Other same-sex couples may choose not to get married because of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which has been repealed by Congress but not fully phased out. A marriage announcement in the paper or even wedding photos on Facebook could still theoretically lead to discharge from the military.
The federal tax system discriminates against gay couples too. They cannot file joint tax returns. Additionally, any health coverage one same-sex spouse receives from the other spouse's employer counts as taxable income in the eyes of the federal government, which could mean thousands of dollars of tax payments. Heterosexual married couples do not have to designate those health benefits as income.
Disagreeing With the Institution of Marriage
Aside from the legal complications of same-sex marriage, some couples say personal reasons have kept them from racing to the altar.
"My partner and I have never considered getting married," said Katherine Franke, a professor of gender law at Columbia Law School. "We don't need the state in our relationship. We're committed to one another without having to get a license – I do have a fishing license by the way."
Franke said she's thrilled for those same-sex couples clamoring to get married in New York, but isn't among the group eager to celebrate the institution of marriage.
"I grew up as an adult in the '70s, when we were very critical of the institution of marriage. We saw it as a patriarchal, sexist institution," Franke said. "We were worried about our heterosexual friends in marriages who found divorce to be a legal process that impoverished women."
What's curious now, Franke said, is how this new civil right is putting pressure on gay individuals to jump at the chance to get married.
"You didn't see people in the African-American community riding the bus and praising buses over other means of transportation, or loving lunch counters and praising lunch counters over other places you might eat once segregation became illegal quite in the numbers that you’re seeing people in the gay community feeling that they should marry to be sort of good gay citizens," Franke said.
When asked if her 18-year-old daughter wants to see her parents finally get married, Franke smiled said her daughter is "even more progressive" than she is and would never ask her two moms to walk down the aisle together.