Without Borders: The Story of a Bi-national Same-sex Couple

- Brad Mattan, RPCV, Ecuador

Introduction

Brad and Raúl cut their cake.

As each group of Peace Corps trainees boards the plane after staging, no one trainee truly knows what the next two years will bring. Indeed, the possibilities are truly endless. While most expect to gain experience in international development work or even learn more about themselves and the world, one thing that most typically do not expect is to fall in love and eventually marry a special someone from his or her country of service.

I write this as I await takeoff from Quito’s International Airport. I am returning from my second trip back to Ecuador since my Close of Service in 2010. Though my visit was only a week, it was a very meaningful one for me and my partner, Raúl, as we celebrated our civil union (legal in Ecuador since 2008). Like most Peace Corps Volunteers, I did not expect to fall in love with and marry an Ecuadorian. In fact, I was generally opposed to the possibility, a sentiment shared by many of my fellow RPCVs, several of whom ended up marrying Ecuadorians! Life has a way of producing unexpected turns.

Like other bi-national couples I have had the pleasure of meeting, Raúl and I experience our share of challenges and rewards. In addition to those are the challenges and rewards that come with being a same-sex bi-national couple at the beginning of the 2010’s.  Among the most difficult obstacles we face is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 law that prohibits the federal government from granting the 1,138 benefits, rights and privileges bestowed by marriage to married same-sex couples. Among the rights DOMA denies to same-sex couples is the ability for a US citizen to sponsor his or her partner for a green card. Unlike many RPCVs who marry non-US citizens and begin a life together in the US, same-sex couples like Raúl and me are barred from doing so. In spite of such difficulties, Raúl and I have shared some memorable moments unique to our relationship. Such experiences have allowed us to grow ever closer and maintain hope for our future even in the face of formidable obstacles and great distances.

Our Story

Raúl and I met about halfway through my Peace Corps service through a mutual acquaintance. We shared an instant connection from the first time we met. After a couple of months of hesitation on my part, Raúl finally convinced me to accept what we both felt for each other and we began our relationship. From that time until the end of my Peace Corps service we were inseparable. He met my host family in Baños, the highland parish where I lived, and I met his family on the coast.

Of course, we kept our relationship a secret from the beginning. For both Raúl’s family and Baños as a whole, we were merely “friends” albeit friends who were suspiciously often in each other’s company. We’re both sure that many are aware there is something more. Even in places where same-sex dating is exclusively underground, a few begin to catch on after a certain point and gossip then takes care of the rest. As an aside, my impression is that Peace Corps generally encourages volunteers not to get anywhere near that point because it could undermine the trust necessary to work safely and effectively in their communities. Fortunately, any potential rumors did not appear to damage the relationships with my counterparts at the schools and church where I provided technical assistance. In the end, Raúl and I never let doubts about gossip keep us from spending time with the people we love whether it was spending carnaval on the coast with Raúl’s family or having a crab soup picnic up in the mountains with my host family in Baños.

Unfortunately, Raúl did not get the chance to meet my parents when they came to visit me during my service in Baños. I first met him in person the day after I dropped my parents off at the airport in Guayaquil. Once we started dating he would often ask me about my family and what they were like. He was always reminding me to call home.

As my service drew to a close in mid-2010, we had decided somewhat naively that I would leave the Peace Corps and join Raúl in Equatorial Guinea where he was offered work. In the meantime, we had also applied for a visa for Raúl to meet my family over the holidays. As I have written for Stop the Deportations, the visa application was rejected because of Raúl’s inability to prove sufficient ties to Ecuador that would compel him to return. Heartbreaking though it was, this kind of rejection is common in developing countries such as Ecuador where visa applicants bear the burden of proving they do not intend to remain in the US. I would later learn that Raúl’s being truthful about his relationship with me in his interview constituted further evidence of such “immigration intent”.

When Raúl’s job offer in Equatorial Guinea failed to materialize, I returned to Ecuador a few months later to work with Community Enterprise Solutions (CES). Prior to my return we bought a small café/bar in order to improve Raúl’s chances on a future visa application. The eight months that I lived with Raúl in Cuenca (the major city closest to Baños) were some of the most stressful either of us have lived. Both of us, for different reasons needed to work our full-time jobs in addition to running the café/bar in the evenings. Fourteen hour days were common. My own job involved regular trips to the field, occasionally leaving Raúl to work and run the café/bar by himself on the weekends.

In spite of the stress, we learned to work out any problems respectfully and enjoy the small things in life and the rare moments we had together, even if that meant just falling asleep together in exhaustion. On top of our work responsibilities, we also began the process of applying for a tourist visa for Raúl to come and visit for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration in August, 2011 to which he was cordially invited by my grandparents (Go here for more on my grandparents and coming out to my extended family after the Peace Corps).

Thanks to the pro-bono advice of Lavi Soloway of Stop the Deportations: The DOMA Project, Raúl and I were able to put together a much stronger tourist visa application (Read the story here).  Among the help we received was a Class B Referral from the Country Director of Peace Corps/Ecuador as well as a letter from US Rep. Bruce Braley. Though those letters guaranteed no particular outcome, they were helpful in getting the US Consulate to carefully consider Raúl’s well-prepared application. Against the odds, the US Consulate in Guayaquil approved Raúl’s visa. Upon hearing the news, I cried in relief, disbelief and sheer joy. Our hard work paid off.

The month and a half that we spent together in the US was unforgettable. Raúl was able to meet most of my dad’s side of the family all of whom received him with open arms. He also attended his first baseball and football game. Raúl was able to experience life in rural Illinois as well as in Chicago and New York City. Perhaps the highlight of the visit was when we got engaged atop my apartment building in Chicago on a beautiful autumn day, overlooking Lake Michigan, the University of Chicago campus and downtown in the distance.

To this day, Raúl continues to talk about his experiences with any Ecuadorians who will listen. In a very real way, the visit fulfilled Peace Corps’ second goal. However, Raúl’s visit also contributed to the third goal by leaving an impact on the Americans he encountered. Whether it was the conversations he had with my parents or the woven crafts workshop he gave at the local art league, he often shared stories and traditions from his native Ecuador. As a frequent translator, I often contributed my own perspective to the conversations.

Yet, perhaps more than anyone else, my understanding of the US, my family and my self was enriched by Raúl’s visit. In Raúl’s fascination with the common phrase “thank you so much” I became aware of the Midwesterner’s tendency to value politeness and civility, something one tends to take for granted when growing up there. I also began to understand the usual Ecuadorian lament about Americans’ carb-heavy and preservative-laden diets, something I had also taken for granted, even after 2 years of nutritious Ecuadorian fare! Naturally, these and other insights helped the two of us to learn about each other and provide a basis for mutual understanding even as we now live in different countries.

Though Raúl returned to Ecuador months ago, we continue to maintain contact as before with daily phone calls and Google video chat. Yet even with daily contact, it has been hard for us to live apart, and particularly for Raúl who now lives in what he describes as multiple worlds. In one, we are able to be open about our love for one another. In another, he must keep us and himself a secret for fear of losing his job and housing. Feeling foreign in his own country, Raúl cannot claim the US as home even though we both know it is the only place where our family, our love and our dreams for the future can be one.

Last week, Raúl and I celebrated our civil union on our two-year anniversary in Ecuador.  With a small group of our Ecuadorian friends, including my host mother and aunt from my Peace Corps site, we held a short ceremony and fiesta to commemorate our special day. The simple ceremony and reception (we spend most of our ever-diminishing resources on plane tickets) was a sign of what we hope to come. We both dream of someday “officially” marrying in the United States in the company of friends and family.

Though that day may still be far off, we are optimistic in light of a constellation of recent court rulings, legislative activity, and activism that may lead to a quicker solution than we originally thought. Currently, I’m collaborating with GetEQUAL, Stop the Deportations and Out4Immigration and their “Home for the Holidays” Initiative. The purpose of the initiative is to petition Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to grant humanitarian parole to same-sex bi-national couples so that we can start our lives together in the US. This initiative was launched during the holidays to call attention to couples like Raúl and me who wish to spend the holidays with our families in the US.

This Christmas, many couples, including Raúl and me, know that we will not be together. However, because of efforts like “Home for the Holidays”, and the countless individuals and organizations working to bring about greater equality at all levels of government and in the private sector, next year may well be different. The two of us will certainly be counting our blessings on the 25th.  Many same-sex bi-national couples have not had the opportunity to travel to the US, as we had this August.  Yet, in spite of the obstacles, it has been worth every moment for Raúl and me.  We both look forward to continuing to learn and grow together in the years to come.

You can learn more about the “Home for the Holidays” Campaign online and sign the petition here.

You can contact Brad Mattan at bmattan@uchicago.edu.

About LGBT RPCV
We are an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and others who are Peace Corps volunteer alumni, current volunteers, former and current staff members and friends. Founded in Washington D.C. in 1991, we have several hundred members throughout the country and around the world who have served in Peace Corps since its beginning in 1961. We're made up of a national steering committee, together with regional chapters. We are an active affiliate member of the National Peace Corps Association.

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