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DOMA Stories:
Federal Marriage Discrimination Hurts Families

GLAD is in court challenging the federal government's discrimination against legally married same-sex couples. In Gill v OPM and Pedersen v OPM, we represent couples and widowers who are harmed in various ways by DOMA. But DOMA hurts many more people than we can represent in these lawsuits.

In these stories, loving couples, widows and widowers, from all walks of life, describe how DOMA hurts their families.

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Two dads, two kids, two dogs and DOMA: Which one doesn’t belong?

Photograph of Thorsten Behrens & Christopher Schiebel

Thorsten Behrens & Christopher Schiebel

How far would you go for love? Thorsten Behrens journeyed from his native Munich, Germany all the way to Springfield, Massachusetts – roughly 3,924 miles – to share his life with Christopher Schiebel.

But he wasn’t the only one who followed his heart; Christopher moved from his hometown of Pittsburgh to join him, putting about 405 miles on the odometer.

Their decision to be together capped three years of long-distance courtship via webcam, online chat and some occasional crisscrossing of the Atlantic, and it wasn’t made lightly. Thorsten had to find an employer in Germany that would agree to transfer him to the states, which eventually resulted in his landing a job in Hartford, Connecticut. And Christopher acknowledges that he was a little nervous about the move. “Definitely,” he says, “but I think by that point we knew each other enough to know that it was really worth a good shot. I think we took our time getting to know each other and I know he was not going to jump until he was ready.”

They set up house in 2002. Under a joint custody agreement, Christopher’s two daughters from his first marriage – Amberlea, now 17, and Caitlin, now 14 – lived with the couple during the school year, which enabled Thorsten to grow into a step-parent role.

In the eight years since moving to Massachusetts Thorsten, 39, and Christopher, 38, have settled into a life that Thorsten characterizes as “very square in a way: house, kids, husband, two dogs.”

In fact, in Thorsten’s retelling, their May 2008 wedding, a backyard ceremony attended by about 30 friends and family members, was as mundane as it was momentous. “Here we are saying our vows and being emotional and tearing up a little, and at the same time the dog’s barking and the kids are running wild and it’s everyday life. So that was nice—the combination of, this is special and at the same time it’s completely and utterly normal and everyday.”

But because they are a bi-national same-sex couple, DOMA creates an undercurrent of stress in their otherwise low-key existence. Under federal law, a U.S. citizen in a different-sex marriage is allowed to sponsor their foreign-born spouse for a “green card,” which gives the spouse permanent resident status. Christopher, however, cannot sponsor Thorsten for a green card because, thanks to DOMA, the federal government does not recognize their marriage. While Thorsten currently has a visa through his employer, he faces deportation should he lose his job or become unable to work. Aside from the obvious emotional devastation of a separation, the family would also be put in difficult financial straits since Thorsten, an IT sales engineer for Carousel Industries, is the primary breadwinner.

“I don’t want to be like the clichéd ‘marry a non-citizen and make him a citizen,’” adds Christopher, who is doing freelance web and graphic design while in-between full time jobs. “But the truth of the matter is, it’s a key component of our relationship and without having that stability it’s one of our greatest stressors. And not just in our relationship but in our finances and everything.”

Unfortunately, there are other DOMA-related stressors for the family, chief among them the hit they take on their federal taxes because they cannot file joint returns, as different-sex spouses can. In the past two years alone, says Thorsten, that has cost them $5,000. That’s a lot of money for a family whose eldest daughter will be heading to college next year.

It’s particularly unfair, Thorsten observes, since “we’re in that income distribution that you would associate with traditional marriage, meaning I make the money and Christopher doesn’t. And that’s what ‘married filing jointly’ was created for, to help those kinds of couples out, and we’re not getting that.”

Still, life goes on: there are nightly family dinners to be prepared and shared, dogs that need walking, and grandparents in Pennsylvania to be visited.

The daily distractions help keep Thorsten’s mind off the bigger issues potentially facing his family. “Not being able to gain my citizenship is impacting us,” he says. “It’s creating a degree of stress. Mainly I deal with it by not thinking about it, otherwise I would go stir crazy.”

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