My 5 Year Engagement: The Long Distance Love Story
There are things you don't really consider when you fall in love with a man who is a Canadian citizen who is in the US on a work visa. Once the visa is up, has to go back to Canada. Indefinitely. That was the case for Stuart and I--We met in January 2006, fell in love fast, moved in together within a few months and have been together ever since. Our story, however, is not that linear. By December 2007 (23 months later), his work visa was expiring so he got a job in Canada and moved back there. And not the close part of Canada. Nothing like Toronto. It was west-coast Canada—long $700 plane flights with many layovers and a 3 hour time difference.
This began an epic 7-year stretch known as the long distance relationship. This story has a happy ending—we are married—despite all the people who told me we’d never last in a long distance relationship for THAT long. This isn’t some sob story or an “in your face, we did it” story; it’s one of hope. Or at least, for me—when I think back over the 10 years I’ve been with Stuart, our relationship, the long distance time line, living out of suitcases to be together, the fact that we were able to get married is one of the biggest miracles I’ve seen in my lifetime. Yes, this is a story about “Gay Marriage” and how the Defense of Marriage Act affected us, until it was struck down in June 2013.
Over a period of years (7 to be exact), many miles were logged to be together and keep our love alive. People on Air Canada actually remembered me-it was almost a joke. I would walk down the streets of New York and bump into people I hadn’t seen in awhile and they would be like, “Oh, are you visiting?” or “How is life in Canada?” People didn’t even think I lived in New York anymore because I was so often in Canada and my Facebook posts became confusing to people. After a few years, I called myself a “Common-Law Canadian” or an “Honorary Canadian.”
In February 2009 I got down on one knee to propose to Stuart while our favorite Frank Sinatra song, "Come Fly with Me" was playing. That's our favorite song because it resembles our long distance relationship. He said yes. We were engaged for over 5 years before we got married. Kind of like that Emily Blunt movie, but not really. We didn’t have what I would call a long engagement. It was more of an indefinite engagement. The most popular question from people over a 5 year period was, “So, when are you actually getting married?” Our answer was always the same—when Gay Marriage becomes legal in the US. People would say, “Just go to Canada and get married and then Stuart can come to New York and stay.” Actually, it doesn’t work like that. At all.
It wasn’t our careers or family responsibilities or “cold feet” that caused us to live in separate countries for 7 years. Our long distance relationship was perpetuated because at the time the United States Federal Government did not recognize Gay Marriage. Sure, some states did allow Gay Marriage; but those marriages were not recognized under the Federal Government. While that doesn’t sound like the biggest deal—Stuart is a Canadian citizen. And until the laws changed, he couldn’t get a green card. Yes, that’s right, US Immigration Laws, whereby a US Citizen marries a non-US citizen and the non-US citizen gets a green card and can stay in the US, was not a luxury afforded to someone marrying into a same-sex marriage until after June 26, 2013. Essentially, a green card via marriage was not our right. Stuart lived in Canada. And I lived in New York. And we were waiting for the laws to change, so that we could marry and be together.
With 3,000 miles between us, Stuart and I had almost separate lives and separate homes and our relationship was a destination. When we came together it was like “vacation time” where you try to get in as much quality time as you can before it’s time for wheels up/back home. Extra long sleep-ins with as much cuddle time as possible were mandatory to make up for the fact that we saw each other only every 4 to 8 weeks. I went to so many weddings, family functions and friend birthday parties solo in those years, because being so far apart made it difficult to prioritize things that weren’t major holidays. It was hard to build a group of friends together, because when we were actually together, we were the only people we wanted to see. We were in the same place together so rarely, that it was hard to plan things with other people. After awhile people would joke, “Does Stuart even exist?” I did a calculation over a 3-year period of how much time Stuart and I spent together physically. 11%. Not a lot. I also did a calculation of how much money we spent on travel to be together over those 7 years. It was enough for a down-payment on a nice 1 bedroom apartment in New York City. Our relationship was worth the investment; it’s still growing.
Starting in March 2013, many people in the US were on the edge of their seats waiting to hear the results from two very important Supreme Court Cases. In many respects, these two cases would directly impact the future for many LGBT people – mainly, they would impact the legality of Gay Marriage and give the right to same-sex married couples to have equal protection under United States Federal law. It’s a lot more complicated than all of that, but here’s summation:
As a gay man and as someone who was engaged to a man, I was really hoping for a “win” in either of these cases. But it wasn’t just a win that would say, “I have equal protection under the United States Constitution, and now, I’m equal.” I needed that win, not just so I could have a legitimate marriage in the eyes of the United States Federal Government. But without the Defense of Marriage Act being struck down, I couldn’t marry Stuart so that he could get a green card. The law stood between weather we would be together in the US or not.
Over those 7 years spent in long distance, we had accepted the legal limitations and made our relationship work for us. We were patient, optimistic and forgiving of this country's policies. The limiting laws played background noise to our love; you get used to it. But there comes a point when being apart like that starts eating away at you. The slow burn and the longing...the questions of why can't I be with my soul mate? It's not legal to marry the person you love. WHAT??? You're not legally allowed to marry the one person who loves you unconditionally and still wants to be with you despite how bad you look on FaceTime.
The fate of our future changed for the good on June 26, 2013 when the results from the Supreme Court cases came out:
1. United States v. Edie Windsor--This lawsuit focused on the Defense of Marriage Act (Repealing DOMA (The Defense of Marriage Act), which basically defined marriage in terms of heterosexual unions. Because of that, LBGT marriages (in the states where Gay Marriage was even legal at the time) were not recognized under the US Federal Government and therefore, LGBT couples didn’t have the same marriage benefits that heterosexual couples had. Edie Windsor won the case, so DOMA was struck down, giving LGBT unions the same protection as heterosexual unions under US Federal Law. For us, it opened the door to a green card. That simple.
2. Then there was Hollingsworth v. Perry, which was a culmination of a series of state and federal court cases that sought to legalize and legitimatize Gay Marriage in the state of California. Ever heard of Proposition 8—a ballot initiative that banned same sex marriage in California? Hollingsworth v. Perry stemmed from that and it was a 4 year battle royale that ended up in the Supreme Court. The case was won and gay marriage was re-legalized in California. Yes, it was legal prior to the Prop 8 Ballot initiative. I know that because I went to my brother-in-law’s gay marriage at San Francisco City Hall in October 2008. At the time, California was one of the few states that actually had legalized Gay Marriage. And within a few months, Gay Marriage was no longer legal in California. It took years to get it back.
The good news is, because both of those cases mentioned above were won in June 2013, same-sex Marriage became legal on a Federal Level. Which meant Stuart and I could get married and he could get a green card and we could be reunited. Thus began the process to “apply” to get married, aka, US Immigration!
Stuart and I applied for a Fiance Visa in December 2013. It’s basically pulling a huge packet of information together that shows your intent to marry and you have to prove that you are a legitimate couple. It’s also extremely expensive if you get a good immigration lawyer--Around $5k all in, including filing fees with the Government. For me, it was actually a relationship affirming process, because we had to write up official statements describing WHY we wanted to marry, detailing important points in our relationship, listing names of family, addresses of where we lived, financial records, health records—all things to prove that we were a real couple and Stuart wasn’t an anarchist or someone trying to get onto welfare or take advantage of our country’s seriously defunct healthcare system. We had to gather flight receipts, put together a photo album of the past 8 years and get references from friends on the validity of our relationship. It was like applying to college all over again. Except, this was for marriage.
Every day I would go to the mail box and see if anything from the US Immigration department came among the valpac money savers and Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons. There was one point where an official document didn’t get input into the system and it held things up. We waited forever before his interview got scheduled. I had a series melt downs—every time I would open a correspondence from the US Immigration Department I had this angst I will never forget. You never knew what was waiting on the inside. It was one of the most rigid times in my life. In hindsight, all that time gathering information to put into official documents and waiting for the blessing from the US Government to marry was very empowering. I sincerely think all couples should have to go through it. It was a great chance to take stock in what we had over a period of 8 years together. It actually justified why we’d want to get married in the first place considering we’d spend an average of 20% of our time together over a number of years—the immigration documents were like a paper trail of our love story. The process, all laid out, gave me hope for our future because we were documenting our past. You see, in a very real and documented way, how legitimate you are as a couple.
In May of 2014 Stuart was called to the US Consulate in Vancouver for his immigration interview. The examiner was before him with the photo album we had submitted and all the paperwork that we had sent. Stuart said the edges of the pages were tattered; there were notes, approval stamps, photocopies of the original signed documents. It was all there—the examiner thumbed through the pictures of us at Christmas in Canada, my nephew’s first Holy Communion in Boston (which Stuart took a red eye flight to and changed into a suit in the airport bathroom), a family dinner in Montauk with my grandma Mable, our friend Erica and Matt’s Wedding in Miami, pictures with our dog who had died in 2011, pictures of the new dog we got in 2012. Our life together was one big pile of pages on a desk at the US consulate in Vancouver. The paper work we sent in, back in December, had traveled through various consulate and state agencies around the US and two in Canada, until it finally got to Vancouver for Stuart’s final examination. It was all there, on the other side. The paperwork went thought the right chain of command and ended up in the hands of the guy who would ultimately approve Stuart to come to the US. Stuart called me that day after the appointment and told me he was coming to New York. They put the “Fiance Visa” in his passport which basically said that Douglas Marshall is sponsoring him to come to the US and we will marry within 90 days. Boom. We were on a deadline to get married. The visa had an expiration date.
Stuart moved to New York one week later, in early June 2014, and then we got married one week later on June 13, 2014. It was kind of an immigration shot-gun wedding-I had one week to find a suit, crash diet and find someplace in upstate New York that would take us for a short honeymoon weekend. We ran down to City Hall in New York City on June 13th and got married before the government changed their minds. It was just Stuart and I and a few friends and a simple meal after. No first dance, no wedding cake, no speeches. It was perfect. It was special. It was real. It was well deserved. So many people asked, “But don’t you want a big wedding with family and friends?” Honestly, no. We spent so many years living our lives without each other, that on our wedding day, I only wanted to share it with him. It was as intimate as a wedding could be.
About 9 months later, Stuart got his green card, which felt like a triumph. It felt like, for once, all that shit was behind us. It feels like forever ago. We live together as most legitimately married couples do and I sometimes forget all that it took to get us here. Ever since June of 2013 when the Supreme Court Case rulings came out, around this time of year, I get really nostalgic and grateful. I’ve never really written all of this out—but now that I’m committing more to blogging, this somehow felt right and necessary. I wanted to take some time to honor our relationship, our marriage, our commitment. I also want to honor all the people who have spent so long fighting for gay rights, sharing their stories, giving of themselves, to move us forward as a culture. This includes people from the LGBT community and our allies and supporters. Without them, I don’t know where Stuart and I would be today. I feel blessed and grateful. I feel lucky—lucky to have met Stuart, lucky to have the amazing loving and supportive family and friends we have and lucky that this journey is part of my life’s story. I love you Stuart, Happy 2 Year Anniversary!
A shorter form of this essay appeared on Bravo.com, click here.