Opinionista Dan Brotman 2 July 2013

DOMA and the accidental activists

Now that the Defence of Marriage Act has been removed from the equation, it’s comforting to know that same-sex bi-national couples can live in South Africa out of choice, not necessity.

Arriving back in Cape Town exhausted and jetlagged after a two-week overseas holiday, I turned my cell phone back on to discover that everything I had been fighting for over the past year was to be determined in just a few short hours. Later that day, the US Supreme Court finally struck down Section 3 of the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied  more than 1,000 federal benefits (including immigration rights) to legally married same-sex couples. A few hours later, I began receiving numerous requests from local media outlets for comment on what this historic ruling means for same-sex bi-national couples like Keith and I.

Last year, I began to feel homesick and started exploring the possibility of moving home to the United States. I soon enough learned that due to DOMA, I had no legal right to sponsor my South African fiancé, Keith, for a Green Card, which at the time was a right only afforded to straight Americans. I felt that this law was incredibly unjust, and knew that I had to do everything in my power to change it.

To add insult to injury, the US is one of the only countries in the world which requires its citizens living abroad to pay taxes on their foreign income. The idea of paying taxes to a country that does not allow me to live with the person I love was unfathomable and utterly un-American.

I unintentionally became an activist when six months ago, I approached a resident senior US diplomat and requested that the Consulate host a tea for same-sex bi-national couples. Although the Consulate had no jurisdiction over DOMA, I wanted it to recognise that a community of Americans reside in South Africa who cannot move home with their partners due to DOMA. My numerous written requests were ignored, and when I finally cornered this diplomat at a public function, I was told that not only would they not be willing to host such a tea at the Consulate, but that they would not be willing to even attend a meeting to discuss this specific issue.

I found this completely unacceptable, and spent the next month locating other local same-sex bi-national couples in the oddest of places, including at my local dog park and via Twitter. Our newly-formed ragtag group of disaffected Americans expats and our South African partners included a Member of Parliament, TV anchor, school teacher, backpacker hostel manager and US Embassy employee.

Once we found each other, we wrote a letter to the interim US Ambassador in Pretoria, demanding that the US Embassy or Consulate meet with us to discuss our plight. A few days later, I received a personal phone call from the interim ambassador, who informed me that the Consulate would indeed now be meeting with us. We eventually had our meeting with three senior US diplomats at an external venue. At the meeting, the Consulate began to understand that we were not going to leave this issue alone until we were granted the same immigration rights as our straight compatriots.

With only a few short months left until the Supreme Court ruling, our media blitz began. Our first local break came when the Cape Times agreed to conduct an interview on the Supreme Court case with myself, my partner Keith and DA Shadow Minister of Finance, Dion George, whose husband is American. The Cape Times story motivated me to contact dozens of other South African and American media outlets, the majority of which expressed absolutely no interest in reporting on America’s last bastion of legalised discrimination.

One morning I received a call from journalist Nkepile Mabuse, whose weekly show on eNews Channel Africa, Outside Eye, interrogates global perspectives on South Africa’s internal discourse. She found my name after coming across an op-ed I had written last year the City Press. A few days later her crew was filming at our house, and once the segment aired, our group began receiving more public support for our cause. The Daily Maverick’s Rebecca Davis wrote a comprehensive article on our group’s advocacy work, for which I am still grateful.

Nonetheless, there were days when I felt incredibly disheartened after having the door metaphorically slammed in my face by both my resident diplomats, countless media outlets and even a few gay rights organisations. Some local American expats expressed outright hostility that we were drawing attention to an unflattering side of the US and for calling ourselves ‘love exiles’, when we can freely return to America, albeit without our partners. We even had the audacity to write a letter to the White House requesting that President Obama meets with us on his state visit to South Africa. We never received a response from the White House, but Section 3 of DOMA was fortunately struck down just days before President Obama touched down in South Africa.

I began forming online friendships with fellow American expats in other countries who were also fighting for the right to move home with their foreign partners. I even met up with two such activists on a recent visit to London; both individuals effectively used the mainstream press and social media to tell their heartbreaking stories of loss and separation. Over time, we formed a global quasi-online community that regularly discussed political and media strategies via Facebook and Skype; we were all equally determined to raise as much attention to the discrimination we faced in the months leading up to the Supreme Court ruling.

Now that we won this fight and I can sponsor Keith for a Green Card, I look forward to moving on with my life. I am now proud to say that Keith and I live in South Africa out of choice, and not because we have no other option. I would like to convey a heartfelt thank you to those who stood by us during this period of uncertainty – especially those few media outlets that gave a voice to a group of American expats who only wanted equal protection under the law. You stood on the right side of history. DM


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