Mark Loewen and Leo Mick, a Richmond couple, met at college in Virginia and spent eight years building a life there together. But because Loewen was an immigrant without full legal rights, and the two men could not marry without starting over and moving to another state, they faced constant financial, legal and emotional strains.
Loewen, 34, a native of Paraguay, was stuck in a series of unsatisfying jobs that depended on temporary work visas. He could not be covered by Mick’s health insurance or co-sign on their mortgage. Later, when they decided to adopt a baby girl together, they discovered that Loewen — by then waiting for his green card but not yet a permanent legal resident — could not be registered as an adopter.
“We were so excited at first,” said Loewen, a mental health counselor. “We went through all the home visits and had a very supportive agency. But when it came to the legal part, we were told I could not be recognized as a parent. Leo had to adopt her as a single father, and I was listed as just another adult in the household. It hurt a lot more than my pride.”
Like hundreds of other gay couples across Virginia, Mick and Loewen were thrilled last week when the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that overturned Virginia’s 2006 ban on same-sex marriage, thus making it legal for them to marry there. But for them and other gay partners facing immigration problems as well, the court action brought a double dose of relief.
In the most urgent cases, being able to marry will protect some longtime binational couples from the permanent threat of separation. Among them are two of the Richmond couple’s closest friends, Kevin Hennerez and Julien Senac. Both were born in France, and Hennerez is now a U.S. citizen. But Senac, a genetic researcher, has long depended on a series of work visas to remain in the country. At the end of this month, his current contract at the National Institutes of Health will expire.
“This news came just in the nick of time. We are incredibly happy,” said Hennerez, 33, an airline financial consultant in Arlington. “I became a citizen last year, so I was all set, but after eight years together, we were really worried what would happen to Julien. We’re going to get married right away, and hopefully now all our problems will end.”
There are no exact statistics available on the number of same-sex Virginia couples — including those with one immigrant partner — who will benefit from the Supreme Court’s action. Since it was announced Oct. 6, though, courthouses and clerks’ offices across the state have been flooded by requests to marry from same-sex couples.
In some instances, national and local immigration advocates said, binational couples in Virginia have already moved away or gotten married in the District, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2009, or in Maryland, which followed suit in 2012. With the recent high court decision, 19 states and the District now recognize gay marriages, and other court rulings may expand that to 30 states.
But for those couples who feared that one partner could be deported, there was no legal remedy until last year, when the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that granted federal rights and benefits to married gay couples. These included the right of a spouse who is a U.S. citizen to sponsor an immigrant partner for permanent U.S. residency — which is exactly what Hennerez and Senac plan to do.
The situation for Loewen and Mick is less urgent because Loewen was eventually able to obtain a green card through the sponsorship of an employer. But both partners said that the process was long, complicated and expensive and that it would have been much faster and simpler if Mick could have sponsored Loewen. For years, they said, everything they did to formalize their relationship — from making out wills to adopting Zoe, now 21 / 2 — put them through legal and logistical contortions.
“It was a real struggle. Everything was incredibly complicated,” said Mick, 34, a corporate training planner who was born in Fredericksburg, Va. He said they considered moving to another state where they could marry but found it difficult to coordinate their careers and less attractive after they bought a house and started a family.
Mick said that many of his friends had “escaped to D.C.” long ago but that he never gave up on the state where he was born, raised, went to college and found his life partner. “I grew up in Virginia,” he said. “It was my home, and I never wanted to leave. Now, thank God, we don’t even have to consider it.”
Hennerez, who was raised in Virginia after his mother emigrated from France, expressed a similar loyalty to his adopted state — even though its voters rejected his right to marry. “I’m a Frenchman, but I’m a Virginian, too,” he declared.
The battle over same-sex marriage in the United States is still far from over. The Supreme Court has not ruled whether state bans are unconstitutional, and some conservative groups have vowed to continue the fight. Moreover, many gay couples are prevented from moving to states where they can marry because of financial or health constraints. But with national momentum building in favor of legalization, gay rights advocates said, it was unlikely that the Virginia ban would ever be reinstated.
“Culturally and legally, we still have a long way to go, but once a right like marriage is recognized and people begin to marry, it is really hard to take that away from them,” said Aaron Morris, legal director of Immigration Equality, a New-York based advocacy group that represents gay immigrants and promotes their rights. “As tens of thousands of people enter into same-sex marriages,” he added, “it seems more unlikely that the courts will support changing it.”
Hennerez and Senac plan to hold a family wedding in France next year. Meanwhile, they are rushing to legally marry in Arlington so they can apply for Senac’s green card. Mick is going to serve as best man. The Richmond couple also plan to get married soon, but they have a different reason for urgency: registering Loewen as the second legal adopter of Zoe.
“By law, I am still a single parent, but Mark is the one she comes running to when she has a scraped knee,” Mick said. “What will change now is that he will finally be recognized as her father, and as the husband he has been for the last eight years.”