When Martin Karaffa accepted a job transfer to New York in 2004, the US-born, Australia-raised ad exec didn't think twice about it. The career move was a stepping stone and after several years in Tokyo, he was ready for a change.
Unfortunately, that change couldn't include Masa, Karaffa's Japanese partner. As the US federal government does not recognize same-sex partnerships, Karaffa's company was unable to obtain a spousal visa for Masa. And his job as a high-end couture salesman precluded Masa from gaining a skilled workers' visa, as some of the over 36,000 bi-national same-sex couples in the US have pursued in order to stay together.
The couple decided that instead of fighting an arcane immigration system, they'd maintain a long-distance relationship while Karaffa looked for other career opportunities overseas. The criteria? A job as high-level as the one in New York in a country that accepted his same-gender partnership.
As one of only 16 countries worldwide that recognizes same-sex marriages for legal immigration purposes, Germany was on Karaffa's radar as he waited out the perfect job opportunity. Once that opportunity came, the process was smooth as butter. Karaffa was not only given a visa as a skilled worker, but Masa was likewise granted the ability to work in Germany.
Bi-national love exiles
While a German Lebenspartnerschaft, or same-gender civil partnership, does not automatically grant all of the same rights as an opposite-gender marriage would do, it does allow for legal immigration to keep same-sex couples of different nationalities together. Over the last decade, this benefit has made Germany into a home base for a number of so-called love exiles, bi-national couples who have left one home country because the partnership was not recognized there.
Though it's unclear just how many of the 23,000 Lebenspartnerschaft performed each year involve a foreign person, Karaffa is by no means the only American to have come to Germany to be with a spouse.
From the USA with love
Marcy Snook took the same step after her now-wife was banned from entering the US for a year. Having visited the US too often during their three-year long-distance courtship, the young German was denied a visa to study in the US and then a total travel ban invoked. The ban meant that not only would the couple not be able to meet in the US, but that in future, the German would no longer be able to use the visa waiver program to enter the US even as a tourist. Every time she wanted to visit, Snook's wife would need to apply for a tourist visa; the first time she applied after the ban, she was again denied for a year.
In the US, Snook contacted the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, a legal organization representing members of the LGBT community. Although they could have made expensive appeals, they were told the likelihood of getting the decision overturned was not high. Even as states across the US are making progressive in-roads in acknowledging same-sex partnerships, these marriages are not officially recognized by the federal government, making a spousal visa for immigration purposes impossible.
The major item standing in the way of this happening is a piece of legislation passed in 1996 known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which has it that although states can grant civil partnerships to same-sex couples, those partnerships cannot be recognized at the federal level. And immigration is a federal question.
This could all change in the near future as government officials are currently working to reform immigration law. President Barack Obama recently sent a proposal for immigration reform to Congress that included extending immigration benefits to same-sex couples.
At the same time, the Uniting American Families Act has been re-introduced in Congress, with talks in the Senate scheduled for February 13.
Gay friendly Germany
Still, even with the possibility of reform on the horizon, the couples who've taken refuge in Germany aren't making plans to return to the US. As they see it, this reform could be a great victory for other couples in their shoes. But the debate has made a gay-hostile culture more transparent.
“If tomorrow, the law changed, I ask myself if I'd go to the US, and I'm not so sure,” said Karaffa.“I'd rather live in a country where nobody looks askance at recognizing gay marriage and gay couples.”