Do Ask! Do Tell!
My name is Michael Bell. I’m an American who’s married to a Frenchman, Michel, and we live together in France. I’d like to explain why it is that we live here and not in the United States. It has everything to do with DOMA.
When I met Michel three and a half years ago, I thought my life was going to go in a certain direction, and I never dreamed it would end up leading here. Our meeting came in a very unexpected way during a short vacation to Paris, and that moment upended all my assumptions I held about my future. In retrospect, I’m lucky that our paths crossed at a time of newfound freedom for me: I had recently left my job as an attorney in a big law firm, I had saved a lot of money and, because of those two facts, I had the means and the time to figure out where this chance encounter should lead me. I can still remember the uneasiness I felt when discussing with my mother for the first time what was happening between Michel and me, and I can still remember her initial concern that her only child was suddenly entertaining the notion of starting a trans-Atlantic relationship. It didn’t take long, though, before Michel and I recognized that we had something very powerful between us and we owed it to ourselves to embrace it, knowing that the path ahead might be fraught with difficulties, long periods of separation, and even heartbreak. But at the same time, we were confident that it might also be filled with abounding joy, beautiful moments together, and love like we had never known before.
Michel and I got engaged just three months after meeting (and after having spent only 23 days face-to-face with each other). The next spring, after three more extended visits, we decided to get married on the anniversary of our engagement. On July 19, 2010, accompanied by my closest friends and my dear mother — who had come to love Michel like another son — Michel and I stood before the altar at St. Thomas’ Parish in Washington, and we were married: joined in the bonds of civil marriage thanks to a recent change in DC’s marriage law, and joined in the bonds of holy matrimony thanks to the Episcopal Church, the Bishop of Washington, and my parish priest. In the eyes of the state (as far as my local government was concerned) and in the eyes of God (as far as my church was concerned), we were “husband and husband,” married in every sense of the word: as married as any other couple before us — gay or straight — who had received a DC marriage license and stood before a pastor, a priest, a rabbi, an imam, or a justice of the peace and said their vows.
But, we were not married in the eyes of the government of the United States of America. The so-called Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) prevented, and sill prevents, the federal government from recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples legally performed under state law. As a result, same-sex couples like Michel and me who were married in DC, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa, New York, or California (before Proposition 8 halted the pratice) don’t have the 1,138 rights under federal law afforded to straight married couples, including Social Security surviving spouse benefits, a plethora of federal tax benefits, Family and Medical Leave Act benefits, continued health coverage (“COBRA”) benefits, and — importantly for me — the right to petition for permanent residency of a non-citizen spouse. Because of DOMA, Michel and I simply do not have the right to remain together in the United States on the basis of our marriage. Michel would have to apply for and receive a student or work visa just so he could live in America with me (his lawfully wedded spouse). Neither of these visas is particularly easy to get. We knew this before we got married, of course; but we also believed that, although “the arc of the moral universe is long … it bends toward justice.” “One day,” we told ourselves, “this law will be overturned and we’ll be able to live together in America on the simple basis that we’re married.” We knew that this change wouldn’t come overnight, though, and I moved to France to live with Michel, arriving in August 2010 with a student visa in my passport. You see, although we expect the law here to change next spring, the French government doesn’t recognize our marriage either, but immigrating to France and staying here is much easier for me than it would be for Michel to do the same thing in America. “Three years,” I thought. “Three years as an immigrant in France and then, hopefully, I’ll be able to come back to the United States with Michel to live for a while.”
In the meantime, I’ve watched from this side of the Atlantic as things have changed more and more rapidly in my home country. I watched with pride as my president ended the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that kept homosexual soldiers in the closet even as they courageously risked their lives defending their fellow citizens. I watched with an increasing sense of hope as President Obama directed the Department of Justice to stop defending DOMA against legal challenges. And my heart swelled when I first heard the president state for the record his personal belief that same-sex couples should have the right to marry — a first for a sitting American president. I felt that I was a witness to that arc of the moral universe bending ever more surely towards justice.
Today, we are seventeen days away from November 6. From where I stand, this is the most crucial presidential election of my lifetime. The country is faced with a stark choice between two very different visions of the world. I will admit that I don’t agree with every position that President Obama holds, but on the issues that most directly impact my life today, there is clearly no choice. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan represent regression — a leap backwards — a whole-scale undoing of the initial brave steps the Obama administration has taken to achieve justice for Americans like me. Under a Romney presidency, we would witness a vociferous defense of DOMA and the continuation of institutionalized bigotry against same-sex couples who are as legally married as any other couple. Quite simply, Romney’s election threatens to delay justice for married couples like Michel and me for at least four more years … perhaps eight … perhaps — with the next president’s likely nomination of new Supreme Court justices — for a generation.
My mother is 67 years old. My father is 80 years old. I want to be near them at this stage in their lives. I don’t want to be living 4,000 miles away on the other side of an ocean. But I shouldn’t have to choose between living with my husband and living near my parents. We all have our own reasons for voting the way we do, but from where I stand, a vote for Mitt Romney is a vote for an unjust system where I’ll always have to make a choice between my husband and my parents. That’s one of the many reasons — and the primary one — why I’ve already cast my vote to reelect President Obama. My vote was a vote for justice for Michel and me, and for people like us.
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