Even though Josh Vandiver and Henry Velandia are legally married, the latter might face deportation in the next few months: indeed, while heterosexual couples can sponsor their spouses for residency, the current discriminatory law prevents Vandiver from doing so for his Venezuelan husband. Forced to become activists, they are making history by being the first same-sex couple to appeal the rejection of their petition for a green card after President Obama deemed the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. While we initially expected to dive into a heavy political conversation with Josh and Henry, we found ourselves simply talking to two men with an extraordinary amount of love for one another and a simple request: equality.
The history of your couple is quite remarkable considering that you came out together and are now husbands. How did you meet and how long was it before one of you popped the question?
Henry: I am originally from Venezuela and came to this country in 2002. I moved to Princeton, NJ, where I met Josh in 2006. The day I met Josh was the day when my life turned 180 degrees. I literally fell in love with him the first day. Maybe it sounds kind of silly—but it was such a connection! The first day I met Josh, I told my mother I was in love, and she got all excited. But then I told her I was in love with another man, and it was a hard time for her. at first, even though she really loves Josh now. After two years or so, we thought about getting married. Even though we had to go to Connecticut, and we knew the federal government doesn’t recognize any same-sex marriages, we decided to be brave and go ahead! We just had to show our love and our commitment to each other. We are simply two human beings who have found each other and can’t wait to build our life together.
Josh: Love really turns out to be like that: one day you find that person you just have to be with. I found Henry completely fascinating—captivating, in fact. I can’t begin to put into words how deeply our personalities meshed and how close we have grown. We know everything about each other. We know each other’s every passion, dream, fault, foible—everything. Just a word or look and he’ll know what I’m thinking. It’s a frightening and exhilarating thing. I can’t imagine my life without Henry.
Tell us a bit about your wedding day.
Henry: Our wedding day was the most special day of my life. It was an amazing late summer day in Montville, Connecticut. It was outdoors in a garden with close family and friends and the most amazing man: my other half. I cannot describe the joy of being able to marry the person who has turned my world around. With and through him my life has a different meaning and I can be myself.
Josh: I felt incredibly nervous—I was trembling throughout the whole ceremony—but also very much at peace. I knew that our future together could now really begin. Getting married is a powerful thing in our culture, and it had a profound impact on my thinking and my sense of self. As a gay person, I felt like a kind of exile in my own country. Now I feel much more grounded in this society after being married in the eyes of the law, thanks to the brave and progressive state of Connecticut!
In your own words, give us some background information in regards to what happened from the moment you got married to your current appeal.
Josh: The week after we got married—we needed a honeymoon, of course!—I filed the same petition every non-gay American files for his or her foreign-born spouse: the I-130 petition for alien relative. I knew that my petition would almost certainly be rejected because of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that provides for federal rights, benefits, and privileges to be granted only to opposite-sex married couples]. DOMA has so many harmful effects for all same-sex couples in the U.S., but for bi-national same-sex couples it’s particularly damaging: it denies me, the American spouse, the right to sponsor my foreign-born spouse for a green card. And sure enough, my petition for Henry’s green card was rejected. They cited DOMA as the reason for the rejection. If I had married a foreign-born woman, it would immediately have been granted. I feel, again, that sense of being an exile in my own land. I am being denied an essential American right: to live in peace in my country with my spouse.
That is just blatantly cruel…
Josh: The rejection arrived February 4th. On February 23rd, President Obama and Attorney General Holder announced they believe DOMA is unconstitutional. For the first time, the most powerful officeholders in our country recognized the hardship and pain this law is causing. It is literally ripping apart the families of thousands of gay and lesbian Americans. It forces us into a kind of second-class citizenship. Obama and Holder are standing up for us and for our constitutional rights at a time when it’s still a bold political position for them to take. I can’t praise highly enough the courage and conviction that President Obama displayed on that day. He is standing at the BR!NK with us.
Three days after the announcement of DOMA’s unconstitutionality, I appealed the rejection of my I-130 petition for Henry’s green card to the Board of Immigration Appeals. We’re certainly the first bi-national same-sex couple to appeal an I-130 rejection since the announcement. We’re in the vanguard and there’s no way to tell what will happen next.
How has it felt to have your relationship politicized and spoken about in the media as much as it has? Was it ever your goal to become activists?
Henry: We never thought we would be activists. Truly, we don’t want to be activists! We just want to be together and build our life together. But we are faced with this unconstitutional law that is breaking our family apart—and not only our family but many couples are being broken apart by this law. We have chosen to fight, to share our story, to open people’s eyes to what we see as an anti-American law that destroys families. We do use our different skills and passions to share our story: my craft is dancing, so I’m dancing at several venues performing a work by choreographer Marie Alonzo [of Tangerine dance company] who has based her piece, “Once Upon Times,” on our story. I feel I can speak through dance and movement.
Josh: Henry finds his voice in dancing. His passion and fearlessness in the face of life—both its challenges and challenging opportunities—never cease to inspire me. Gay and lesbian Americans, we each have to find our voice. We learn to be silent. We learn to swallow our pride. I found my voice, and my self, by studying the ancient Greeks. They conceive of sexuality in totally different terms, and a young gay man Plato’s Symposium totally changed my life and my view of the world. The ancient Greeks also have a very sophisticated language to describe the passions that rise within us when we experience or witness an injustice or indignity. We get angry. That anger stiffens our spine. We suddenly find our voice and learn to speak against injustice.
You’re on the BR!NK of being the first couple to appeal the refusal of Henry’s green card after President Obama’s historic declaration that DOMA is unconstitutional. What are your hopes?
Josh: We hope the deportations of spouses of gay and lesbian Americans stop right now. We have a petition to Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano asking her to stop the deportations. Napolitano has that power. She stopped the deportations of foreign-born widows of Americans. No spouse of a gay or lesbian American should be deported, especially now that the President has announced DOMA is unconstitutional. We hope the Board of Immigration Appeals grants my appeal and allows Henry to get the green card that will keep us together. But they may reject my appeal as long as DOMA remains the law of the land. That’s why it’s important for us all to contact our representatives in Congress and ask them to repeal DOMA now.
Have you met with other bi-national LGBT couples undergoing the same struggles, and are there any approximations as to how many there are in this country?
Henry: Hundreds of similar couples have gotten in touch with us, so that means there are thousands more in this country who are being hurt by DOMA. Some are facing deportation and separation like us, some had to go into exile to another country, and some are living thousands of miles apart from each other. Many young people have written to us, sharing that they feel hopeless in seeing a future where they can’t be with the person they love. Through our Facebook page, which has over 10,000 supporters, so many people, gay and straight, are blessing us with their support and have told us we are representing many whose voices are not being heard. We are working for change, for greater humanity in this country, for them and us.
What would you say to people arguing that sponsorship should not be authorized as long as same-sex marriage is not recognized on a federal level? Or even that same-sex marriage should not be recognized at all?
Josh: Well, I’m used to discussing these issues with my parents. They have views different from mine. Ultimately, we’re not asking people to change their personal beliefs about same-sex marriage. I’m simply asking for equal treatment under the Constitution as an American citizen. I believe it’s a conservative principle that individual states should determine their marriage laws. The federal government, historically, simply recognized what each state defined a marriage to be. That’s how it should still be. If Connecticut decides to allow same-sex marriage, then the federal government should defer to that decision. We join hands with conservatives: Let the states decide. Keep the power of the federal government away from our families.
How can our readers contribute to your success?
Josh: We would be truly honored if they would share our story with others. Share the stories of couples like us. Sign our petition to Napolitano. Tell your Congressional representatives to repeal DOMA. Support those who are standing with us. We see ourselves fighting for the U.S. Constitution, for the rights and equality of all Americans. Please join us.