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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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Uncertainty Clouds a Lasting Love

Photograph of Brian Khoo & David Colton

Brian Khoo & David Colton

David Colton saw Brian Khoo walk into the Spyker bar in Amsterdam on April 28, 1997 and was instantly smitten.

Brian, however, experienced something a little different in that moment. “Personally, I didn’t see him, but I was a little self-conscious because I was the only Asian in the bar,” he recalls, laughing. He made a beeline for the bar and ordered a Heineken. “I don’t like attention.”

Brian, who lived in Malaysia, was a flight attendant with Singapore Airlines taking in Amsterdam’s nightlife during an extended layover; David, a Bostonian, was vacationing. They eventually struck up a conversation in the bar. By night’s end, Brian was just as smitten as David.

Three months and more than $1,200 in phone bills later, Brian came to the U.S. on a student visa to study interior design at Newbury College. He also took a job at a library and settled into a life with David. After graduating, Brian, now 39, landed a job with Kent Duckham Architects, an architectural and interior design firm. David, 52, who has spent more than 20 years working in municipal government, is now the town administrator in Easton. They married in April 2008, a black-tie affair attended by Colton’s two daughters from a previous marriage, other family members, friends and co-workers. After 11 years together, says Brian, being able to introduce David as his husband gave him an “otherworldly” feeling.

It sounds like the stereotypical fairy-tale romance, but the reality is more complicated. Under DOMA, the federal government does not recognize David and Brian’s relationship so David can’t sponsor Brian for a marriage-based “green card” that would give Brian permanent resident status, as heterosexual bi-national couples routinely do. Instead, Brian has an H-1b employment visa through his current employer CBT Architects, which means he could face deportation if his company folds or he otherwise loses his job. He is required to re-apply for the work visa every three years, a process the couple says has cost them a total of $30,000.

Even though Brian lives and works here legally, without a green card there are no guarantees he’ll be treated fairly. The couple learned this the hard way in August 2002 – ironically, when Brian returned home to Malaysia to be the best man at his friend’s wedding. David joined Brian in his native country after the wedding and the two spent a month together visiting Brian’s family. But when they tried to return to the U.S., they say that Brian’s visa was inexplicably withheld and David was forced to leave him behind in Malaysia. “When I couldn’t help Brian I felt powerless,” says David, who, eight years later still gets emotional when discussing the forced separation.

There would be a half-year of legal wrangling, wondering and worry before Brian was allowed to return to the U.S., and that happened only after David used some “extraordinary connections within the United States government.”  David and Brian say they never received an explanation from the federal government as to why Brian was prevented from returning home for so long. They believe the government was more closely scrutinizing Brian because Malaysia is an Islamic country.

Brian recalls his six-month limbo as “a black hole.” He says, “It doesn’t seem like anything happened. [It was] like time stood still.”

The one thing that did happen is that Brian’s employer generously held his job for him for the entire six months he was away, a fortunate occurrence given his immigration status. But while David and Brian were ultimately reunited, they no longer travel outside of the country; Brian has not visited his family in Malaysia since that trip in 2002. “Our lawyer has advised us that he must be on some kind of list and he’s likely to have this problem every time he leaves the country, even though technically we’re free to travel,” says David. While Brian’s mother has visited him on U.S. soil, she is increasingly less able to withstand the 24-hour trip from Malaysia due to health problems and her advancing age.

“If we were a straight couple we wouldn’t have had that problem,” David points out. “Brian would have a green card, he would be a permanent resident, he’d be married to an American citizen and we’d enjoy all of the freedom you’re supposed to get when you’re an American.”

Brian admits that his uncertain immigration status and his inability to travel to see his family status cause him some “psychological turmoil.”

“It’s almost like my time back in Malaysia now – but in reverse,” he points out. “Now I’m here and not able to go home.” He adds, “I wouldn’t be able to go through this without David. I absolutely couldn’t. I can’t even think about life without him in it.

“But there’s nothing I can do, really,” he adds. “I think I’ve done all I could do but just wait it out. I feel for a lot of people who have this situation.”

The recent ruling in Gill does not fix immigration problems for same-sex couples. For more information see our warning for binational couples or call our Info Line at 1-800-455-GLAD or 617-426-1350.

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