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DOMA hits home for gay Utahns

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No one plans who they’ll fall in love with. And Ben Visser, a 32-year-old Utah man, certainly didn’t plan on falling in love with a man that lives on the other side of the world.

“It’s not what you picture in your life. That you’ll grow up, meet someone 8,000 miles away and fall in love with him,” Visser said.

He has been dating B.E.V., whose name is withheld for his own safety, for more than a year. The pair starting chatting online and when they first met in B.E.V.’s native Indonesia, the connection was instant. After continuing their communication online, using Skype when it’s available and texting, the couple is ready to make the next step, but the U.S. government isn’t.

B.E.V. is not a U.S. citizen and was denied a travel visa to visit. Even after Visser returned to Indonesia to the U.S. embassy and petition for leniency, none was granted and B.E.V. is still not allowed to visit his partner. Because Visser’s life — children and career — are already established in America, emigrating to Indonesia is not possible.

“I always heard growing up that our country was a land of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. But that no longer applies to me. It’s not an option for me in this country until my family can be made whole. My life, liberty and happiness is being with this person and I can’t do that,” Visser said.

The anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, more popularly known as DOMA, bars the federal government from recognizing gay couples, such as Visser and B.E.V. Were Visser dating a woman, the process to receive a visa would be very clear; first, they’d apply for fiancé visa and after their wedding, B.E.V. could apply for permanent residency. Even if the pair were to live in one of the nine states that recognize marriage equality, DOMA prohibits the federal government from granting the same marriage rights to gay couples.

“DOMA singles out lawfully married same-sex couples for unequal treatment under federal law,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin. “It denies same-sex couples more than 1,100 federal rights and benefits.”

The law was officially enacted in 1996 when lawmakers saw some state making moves toward marriage equality, particularly Hawaii. DOMA has been challenged in federal courts more than a dozen times and in 2011 the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend the discriminatory law.

House Republicans launched their own defense and have since used more than $1.5 million in taxpayer dollars for legal costs. Eight federal courts, including the First and Second Circuit Court of Appeals, have found DOMA to be unconstitutional and unfairly discriminatory on issues including bankruptcy, public employee benefits, estate taxes and immigration. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal in one of those cases, United States v. Windsor, with oral arguments expected in March 2013.

The case concerns Edith Windsor and Thea Clara Spyer who were married in 2007 in Canada. Spyer died in 2009 and Windsor inherited her belongings and property. DOMA didn’t allow the Internal Revenue Service to recognize Windsor as a surviving spouse and she was given a tax bill of $360,000. Had they been in an opposite-sex marriage, she would have not faced the tax bill.

The announcement that the case would be considered opens the door for a major victory for gay rights, said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry.

“By agreeing to hear a case against the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, the Court can now move swiftly to affirm what 10 federal rulings have already said: DOMA’s ‘gay exception’ to how the federal government treats married couples violates the Constitution and must fall,” Wolfson said. “When it comes to the whole federal safety net that accompanies marriage – access to Social Security survivorship, health coverage, family leave, fair tax treatment, family immigration, and over 1000 other protections and responsibilities — couples who are legally married in the states should be treated by the federal government as what they are: married.”

As Visser and his partner navigate the unclear path to keep their family together, they, along with millions of other Americans, will be watching the Supreme Court’s actions with bated breath. If the justices agree that DOMA is unconstitutional, Visser’s family could be reunited with much greater ease.

“It isn’t about having a fabulous wedding. It’s about having a dedicated person in your life, someone you get to spend every day with. It’s about every day after your wedding day,” Visser said.

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