International Same-Sex Marriage
By Don Bapst
online: July 19, 1999
This article was broadcast on The Gay Financial Network,
The gay press has generated a lot of pages on the subject of same-sex marriage over the years, much of it contributing fire to an already heated debate: Do we, as gay people, want to model our unions after the heterosexual example? Is marriage a valid signifier of happiness and commitment between two people? Must a couple seek the approval of church and state to legitimize vows of devotion? Is mainstream acceptance of our unions the best or only way to eradicate homophobia?
While such questions provoke a lot of thought, they overlook some of the more immediate nuts and bolts issues faced by many same-sex couples interested in marriage not simply on a theoretical and symbolic level but out of an urgent necessity. These are the international couples who are unable to remain together without state recognition of their partnerships. If you fall in love with a Bolivian tourist, next summer, what will you do when his or her visa expires? Will one of you marry someone of the opposite sex and live a long, difficult lie in the search for papers? Will one of you work under the table and risk arrest? And how will you cope financially and emotional with the stress?
Having been through many of these choices myself, I know what it means to face them. I know what it means to live abroad with a partner of another nationality, facing hostile immigration clerks and unconcerned heterosexuals who assumed the new global visibility of gays meant we had no more real problems. I know, too, how difficult it was when the tables were turned and my lover became an unwelcome guest in the country of my origin, the United States.
But there's always a positive lesson to be gained from whatever challenge one faces. And having researched our options for living together for nearly a decade, we became familiar with exactly which rights and resources were available to international, same-sex couples. The purpose of this piece is to share this valuable information with anyone who is currently facing a similar ordeal.
Which Countries Recognize Same-Sex Marriage?
None. It's really that simple. There is some confusion over this matter because in the gay community's optimism over certain positive developments, we've forgotten to pay careful attention to semantics.
Which Countries Recognize Same-Sex Partnerships?
Six: Denmark (including Greenland), Hungary, Iceland, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. In these six countries, a partnership can be registered for all the same economic benefits and advantages that straight people can have. However, there is no recognition yet of the right to adopt children, even in these nations.
How Do You Do It?
Here's the catch: one of you has to be a citizen of the country in which you are getting married. If you fall in love with a Swede or a Dane, for example, then you are (logistically speaking, at least) in luck. Of course, based on sheer numbers of people, the odds of falling in love with someone of the most "convenient" nationalities are small since the total population of all six of these countries put together is under 50 million. And don't forget that getting married to a Hungarian may give you the right to live in Hungary but it won't teach you Hungarian, and you're probably going to want to learn that before starting the job hunt. When you think of the difficult languages spoken in these six countries, you'll see why there hasn't been a stampede of locals dragging gay immigrants over their nation's borders.
All but one of the six sainted nations are part of the European union, so a lot of Americans figure it must be a simple matter for, say, a German to move to Denmark in order to marry his American boyfriend and live happily ever after. Wrong. While being a member of the European nation may entitle a German to seek work in Denmark, he has to actually find a job in order to stay on and establish residency. This usually involves learning fluent Danish (a language spoken by about only 10 million people globally) to compete in a highly selective job market in a country where a majority of the population is fluent not only in Danish but in German, English, Dutch and often French. He must eventually become a full-fledged Danish national (which means living in Denmark for several years then giving up his German nationality) before he can form a partnership with a foreigner, entitling the partner to apply for Danish residency.
Other Countries With Other Options
The good news is that there are other countries that recognize the value in same-sex partnerships. While these countries don't give homosexual couples all of the same benefits that heterosexuals get, they do make immigration for the foreign partner of a national possible. The conditions vary from country to country and seem to change from minute to minute. In fact, you might speak with two different people at the consulate of almost any nation (whether a gay-friendly nation or not) and hear two entirely different versions of official policy. Consulates have a long-standing tradition of not making things easy for anyone who wants to immigrate to the country in question. That's the consul's job, to make it nearly impossible for people of every national origin, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation to immigrate. I wish I could say they were equal in dealing with difficulties, but it is harder for same-sex couples generally, even in those countries that have relatively liberal policies towards "homosexual immigration."
Australia, Canada and New Zealand are three countries that are pretty clear in their official documentation that a same-sex partner of a national may obtain a temporary residency permit in the country, provided the relationship is "long term." What is not so clear is what they will accept as proof of "long term." For starters, you're supposed to show evidence of having lived together for a significant period of time, which is obviously not something you'd have been able to legally do under typical circumstances without holding a residency permit in the first place. Secondly, the incoming partner usually has to prove within a certain period of time that he's able to sustain him/herself or be sustained by the "legal" spouse. This means that your partnership is at least partially contingent upon your ability to find work in a foreign land within a relatively short period of time. Canada seemed poised to recognize same-sex marriage until their Parliament, reacting to a Supreme Court decision that struck down a heterosexual definition of spouse, declared that marriage is a union of a man and a woman. Period.
Still More Countries
The following is a list of countries that show some encouraging developments towards recognizing same-sex partnerships.
Argentina, Brazil, the European Union (especially France, Belgium, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Finland), Switzerland, Israel, South Africa, and, yes, the United States.
Let's not forget that relative to the rest of the world, the U.S. still takes more immigrants in each year than any other country in the world. (Though the accuracy of this fact depends on how you count the numbers: as a percentage of total population, American immigration actually falls short of several other countries.)
Domestic partnership benefits are provided in cities like San Francisco and states like Hawaii and Oregon. It's difficult, but it is possible to bring your lover into the country, and there are probably more support networks in the U.S. for international same-sex couples than in any other country. In fact, despite immigration restrictions, it may be easier for, say, a Dutch-American couple to "settle down" in the U.S. than in Holland. For starters, consider the job opportunities for a multi-lingual Dutch person in the U.S. versus those in Holland for an American who doesn't speak Dutch.
How To Help Get "Married" To Your Foreign Partner And Settle Down In The USA
David S. Wright is an immigration lawyer in San Francisco who has helped many gay and lesbian people find options for staying in the USA to be with their spouses. While many of the cases he deals with involve people seeking asylum in America, about one third of all his gay and lesbian clients come to him because they want to remain in America to be with their would-be spouses. As a volunteer for the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force (a NY-based organization that offers volunteer-run immigration clinics in several U.S. cities), he says he has "seen many people who have suffered greatly under existing immigration laws. These blatantly discriminatory laws have an immediate and intense effect on people, acting like real brick walls in their lives. Couples of the opposite sex don't have these hurdles, and the process is a fairly simple and straightforward for them."
Despite the severity of the tough reality faced by many international gay and lesbian couples, Wright feels "it would be a mistake to focus too heavily on the hurdles. There are also a lot of options that may not be immediately obvious and may involve some difficulty but which may make living together a possibility." To cite just one example, Wright referred to "entrepreneurial enterprise" as a frequently successful way of sponsoring a spouse's immigration to the U.S. "If you and your partner have certain skills and can find the means to form a business, your foreign partner can be sponsored on a visa from your company provided that you can prove an American citizen can't perform the same function." Fluency in international languages is just one obvious skill that a U.S. employer may need to run a successful business.
The Rest of the World
There are still other countries that view immigration on a case by case basis, and through some little-known legal loophole, you could strike pay dirt in some unexpected corner of the world. If your honey is Chinese, I wouldn't start by calling his or her consulate.
The Bottom Line
In actual fact, an international marriage is a huge commitment for same-sex partners and one to not be taken lightly. If anyone still feels that couples need to take ceremonial marriage vows after facing years of immigration battles, then let them throw the wedding. It will certainly be a piece of cake in comparison to the financial and emotional ordeal that preceded it.
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) publish a fact sheet called "Registered Partnership, Domestic Partnership, and Marriage." Their Web site offers a number of valuable links and much useful information.
1360 Mission Street, Suite 200
San Francisco CA 94103
The Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force (LGIRTF) maintains an equally valuable and informative Web site. Donations to support their volunteer-run immigration clinics are always greatly appreciated and needed.
P.O. Box 7741
New York NY 10116-7741
And just in case:
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services