The story of how a girl from Colorado gets lost in a Rio de Janeiro slum and falls in love with a brasileira.
Before I met Michele, I had never been romantically or sexually involved with a woman. Yet if I stop to think about it, I have felt attracted to women since at least the 4th grade. I came to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil right after graduating from college in 2010. One night at a party a month after arriving, she kissed me. I wasn’t expecting it and at the same time, I knew it was exactly what I wanted. I had first seen her two weeks before singing and playing guitar at a fundraising event. We didn’t actually meet that time, but when she told me later that she was a singer, I realized it had been her. After the kiss, I literally walked away from the party and went home. I didn’t know what else to do. On my walk home, waves of emotions and questions flowed over me. Could she see that I was gay? How? Is it written on my forehead? Is this a bad thing? What do I do now? Do I want a relationship with her? So when I got home I sent her an email with just the link to Brandi Carlile’s, The Story. I felt at the moment that it conveyed whatever I was feeling. Turned off the lights and went to bed.
Two weeks later, I still hadn’t heard from her. I was convinced she wanted nothing to do with me and had opted to pursue someone who wasn’t so obviously confused. Part of me thought it was probably for the better. But most of me missed her a lot. She invited me to a concert as if nothing had happened and I let out a sigh of relief. Maybe this meant we could go on pretending nothing had happened and start over as friends? I asked her why she never responded to my email. When she went back to look at her inbox, she had deleted it thinking it was spam since it was just a link with nothing written. Well that made sense. I guess I should have included a note.
We started hanging out more often and it was obvious we both wanted something more than friendship. I wanted to explore these feelings and Michele gave me a sense of safety and trust. One night, hanging out at a friend’s BBQ, she dared to kiss me again and this time I didn’t run away. We didn’t talk about it until later that night when I held her hand walking home. I told her she was the first woman I had ever had a relationship with and she basically jumped out of her skin. What?? I could see the wheels start to spin. The thought of patiently walking someone through their first lesbian relationship was probably not much of a turn on but she wasn’t expecting me to stick around in Brazil for very long either. We both thought this would be a summer romance and then we would go our separate ways.
Days turned to weeks. Weeks to years. In short, I never left Brazil. Our friendship turned romance developed into a full fledged relationship. We unabashedly called each other girlfriends and had no shame walking around with everyone knowing we were together. Thankfully, she had already been out for 10 years and her family, friends and community were incredibly supportive. I couldn’t have asked for a better environment to overcome my own fears and misconceptions about homosexuality and ultimately to accept myself. We went to concerts, explored the city, took weekend trips to the mountains, laid on the beach, ate ice cream and sushi, listened to music and of course, danced. I loved her and there was no doubt that the feeling was completely mutual.
STAYING LEGAL IN BRAZIL
We looked for every possible way to keep me in Brazil legally. I had come here as a tourist which only gives you six months. Luckily, I found a Masters program that interested me so I could leave the country and come back on a student visa. When classes started, the program didn’t turn out to be what I was ultimately looking for. I dropped out and started to teach private English classes around the city. I made enough money to get by on and pay the rent. A year went by and we were still inseparable but my student visa was soon to expire again. We sat down and had a a serious conversation. Under normal circumstances, most couples wouldn’t be getting married after a year of dating but we knew for a fact that we loved each other and wanted to continue to live in the same country. We decided to quietly sign a few papers at the notary’s office to get a stable union allowing us to apply for my permanence in Brazil (Oct 2011). Our first trip to the Polícia Federal to apply for my permanence was a disappointment. Actually, anyone who has ever been to the Polícia Federal in Brazil knows that most trips are a disappointment. A stable union wasn’t good enough. We would have to prove we had been living together for at least two years showing joint bank accounts, apartment leases, etc. We didn’t have these kinds of documents but time was running out.
DECIDING TO GET MARRIED
We went back to the notary to apply for a marriage license (early Dec 2011). They were confused. How might we want to go about that since we were both women? We were obviously the first gay couple to come to this notary’s office. Fortunately, on May 5th 2011, a law had already been passed allowing same-sex couples to convert their stable unions into marriage licenses. Few people knew of this law and it was to no surprise that the people at the notary’s office were clueless. Bureaucracy in Brazil causes change to move at a snails pace. We applied anyways. Since we were the first couple to make the request at this branch, they took a few extra minutes to change the forms to “cônjuge” which means “spouse” instead of “bride” and “groom”. The ladies working on our paperwork were giddy. They were excited to be a part of what we were doing.
OUR WEDDING AND PARTICIPATING IN CHUVA DE ARROZ (GNT)
Marriage license requests when made by a heterosexual couple are usually ready in 2 weeks to a month. We naively though it would be the same for us. We needed it to mean the same for us because my student visa was going to expire in a month and a half. We were both tired of worrying about visa expiration dates and just wanted to enjoy our life together. It felt like an expiration date for our relationship. We wanted nothing more than to stay together and be able to make plans for the next few months or years without this kind of pressure. Months went by as we waited for our marriage license to be approved. We were contacted by a show called Chuva de Arroz on GNT (kinda like our TLC) asking if we would participate in a show about marriages that stray from the norm. Since the law had been passed only months before allowing for same-sex marriage, they wanted to feature one lesbian couple and one gay couple.
At first I was against it because we were trying to keep everything to ourselves. We reconsidered because the show would give us the chance to celebrate our love with friends who had supported us. Besides that, who would turn down a free wedding? In January of 2012, we decided to participate. See the trailer to our episode.
Since our episode had to be recorded by the end of March, that gave us only two months to plan a whole wedding (!!!). It was stressful but at the same time, so much fun. We ran around like crazy people trying to figure out decoration, taste testing cakes and food, picking out clothes and jewelry. Michele says she’s glad the planning period only lasted for 2 months because people who have to go through a whole year of that must go completely insane.
FIRST FEMALE COUPLE IN RIO TO RECEIVE A MARRIAGE LICENSE
By the day of our wedding on March 27th, our marriage license still hadn’t arrived and we were starting to lose hope that it ever would. But we pushed aside these thoughts for the day and had a beautiful time with 70 or so of our Brazilian friends and Michele’s family. In the back of my mind I kept thinking of all my friends and family in the U.S. who I wanted so desperately to be there too. But I reminded myself that one day we would be able to recreate the moment with a second celebration in the U.S.. After five months of waiting, in May of 2012, our marriage license request was finally approved. We were also informed that we were the first female couple in Rio de Janeiro to be approved. We were featured in the first gay wedding magazine in Brazil called Momento Inesquecível (Unforgettable Moment) in an article called “Love Without Borders” ( see on-line version). Marcelo Jeneci used some footage from our wedding in one of his music videos about marriage called “Pra Sonhar”.
MOVING TO THE UNITED STATES
Even with the relief of receiving our marriage license, it was too late to apply for permanence. I was already “illegal”. My love for Michele had grown exponentially over the past months as we learned how to become a married couple. This is something I believe you “learn” to do and not just something you “become” on the day of your wedding. Planning the wedding made us realize how much we meant to each other, how much we wanted to be together and plan a life. We discussed what would be best for our careers and for building a life together. Ultimately, we both felt this meant moving to the U.S.. Michele had never been to the U.S. but knew the standard of living was higher than in Brazil in a number of ways. I was so homesick at this point that instead of worrying about permanence in Brazil and paying the hefty fine I owed for overstaying my student visa, I decided to just leave Brazil in October of 2012. Michele would meet me in the U.S. in January or February when her Cultural Event Production class was over. I was excited to go home and recharge my batteries. Constantly thinking about visas and paperwork, planning a wedding in two months, working under the table without financial stability and the stress of living illegally in Brazil had taken its toll. I desperately missed my friends and family.
Saying good bye to Mi at the airport was incredibly heart wrenching. We had never been apart for a whole three months. I felt like I was abandoning her even though she would be arriving “soon” after me. But I knew it was time. I was becoming a huge pain in Brazil. I was stir crazy and frustrated with not being able to pursue a career or a Master’s degree. I was depressed with the whole situation of living illegally and missed a lot of the comforts of my own country. This was the best choice for us to make at the time so I kissed her good-bye and we both cried while trying to think of the logic of the situation.
The first two weeks were painful. Everything I did made me think of her and wish she were there to share it all with me but I knew she was coming soon. I enjoyed every minute being pampered by my mom again. We hadn’t spent this kind of quality time together since before I left for college. No more Skype conversations! We were actually in the same room and it felt great. We were able to talk about a lot of important issues that were easy to brush under the rug when I was a continent away. On November 29th, Michele’s visa interview day, she called me sobbing at 5 a.m. Her tourist visa had been denied and the reason was our relationship. Same-sex marriage for binational couples isn’t yet recognized in the U.S. and they did not want to allow her into the U.S. knowing she would want to stay with me, her wife. We were completely shocked and devastated by this decision. This was the first time we were facing real discrimination and we couldn’t even be in the same place to face it together. It took a few days to recover and think of a new plan. We decided not to give up, but to apply again in February. In December of 2012 my mom and I took a road trip to New York and I moved in with my little brother. I started looking for work right away, eager to set up a comfortable place for Michele to come to when she arrived in February. All the money I had made working at a coffee shop in Colorado went to rent our Brooklyn apartment.
MICHELE NOT ALLOWED INTO THE U.S. BASED ON OUR RELATIONSHIP
February came and she was denied a second time. It was made obvious that the decision was final. The fact that she was married to an American was already in their system. Michele could simply not be with me in the U.S. me because we were married. It didn’t make any sense. We spent the next few days researching our options, I met with and called a list of lawyers. All of whom said there was no hope until DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) was repealed. Since 1996, it has stated that marriage is only valid between a man and a woman and since this law is at the federal level, it affects immigration. My marriage to Michele will not be recognized until the law comes down. Some lawyers suggested that we move to Canada like many other same-sex couples who were waiting out the Supreme Court decision in June of 2013. It was not ideal to uproot again. I was broke from the move to NY and didn’t want to leave my family again but at least Canada was accepting of same-sex couples and still close enough to New York that I could visit my family often.
WORKING TOWARD MARRIAGE EQUALITY
While we waited to hear back about Michele’s Canadian visa, I started to get involved in the same-sex marriage movement. It was gaining strength and speed was key since the Supreme Court was finally going to take on the case on March 26th, 2013. I went to Senator Schumer’s office with Immigration Equality to talk about why LGBT families were not included in the UAFA bill. We were disappointed with their answers, “We’re working on it,” and “Trust us, we care about your families too” just didn’t seem like good enough answers. The reality was that including LGBT families in the bill would scare off Republicans. They were worried that Republicans would not pass the Immigration Reform bill if our families were included. Hearing these excuses reminded me of why I never wanted to get involved in politics in the first place.
Eventually we found out that Michele’s Canadian visa request was also denied and by this time we were both exhausted, disappointed, frustrated and sad. I decided there was no choice but to move back to Brazil. Without a doubt, I just wanted to be in the same place again with the person I love. I wanted to hug her and wake up every morning so we could have breakfast. I wanted to come home from work and tell her about my day and listen to her come up with songs on the guitar. It was such a simple request but the U.S. and now Canada wouldn’t allow us to do this. We had spent 6 months apart and I was done with living a continent away.
MARRIAGE EQUALITY RALLY AND GOING BACK TO BRASIL
I booked a flight for March 26th which meant I would land in Rio the morning of the 27th, our one-year wedding anniversary. Before I left, I was determined to participate in the Marriage Equality rally in Washington D.C. The rally was scheduled on the 26th because it was the first day that the Supreme Court would take on the DOMA and Prop 8 cases. Michele and I had planned to go together but now I would have to go represent both of us alone. It was tempting to stay home and wallow but I wanted our voices to be heard. This case was so important for our future happiness. So I made a poster and carried it at the rally in front of the Supreme Court building on March 26th. I watched anti-gay marchers tell us that our relationships were invalid, that God didn’t approve and that all children deserve a mom and a dad. I was disappointed to see such hatred and bigotry but also encouraged by other couples fighting to make a change.
FIGHTING AGAINST DOMA
It’s an understatement to say that it was an emotional day. I was lucky to have so many friends (especially Holly and Kristen) supporting me when I needed them. After the rally I went back to Holly’s to get my bags together and waited for the shuttle to take me to the airport. It was a bittersweet moment. I missed Michele so much it hurt in my bones. I wanted to be by her side again and I was excited about that. But I was leaving my family and my country yet again, uprooting all the fragile things I had planted in the last 6 months waiting for our life to start. Sitting at the airport, I decided to come out finally on Facebook about my relationship with Michele. All of my emotions at the rally had made me feel like it wasn’t worth hiding anymore, that people would take it or leave it and I could start to just live my life. It was hard because I felt like a lot of my family wouldn’t understand so after posting an article I had written for the DOMA Project on my page, I sat there shaking for a while. Within hours I had so many positive responses in my inbox from friends around the world. Most said they had no idea and all of them said how proud they were. I felt so blessed to have that kind of support, especially on a day like this. Before boarding the plane, a friend sent me a link from BuzzFeed showing me as #52 on “The 60 Best Signs Against DOMA and Prop 8 at the Supreme Court“.
My 10-hour flight was quick because I passed out from exhaustion. The day had started at 6am filming for a news piece on our way to the Supreme Court rally. I got through customs quickly and anxiously looked through the faces waiting to receive their loved ones. My loved one was not there. I was confused. Michele wasn’t waiting for me like I expected. I thought, she’s either waiting for me at the wrong gate or she’s late. Michele is notorious for being late but I wasn’t expecting it today of all days so I decided to give her a call. The phone just rang and rang. I started to panic and think that something had gone very wrong. I parked my duffle bags and held back tears. I wasn’t expecting this one. An hour went by and I was still waiting. Most of the other passengers had already left with their friends and family. I felt a little pathetic still waiting there. She came rushing down the stairs with a huge bouquet of flowers, laughing at me. “Hahahaha you look like a lost little kid!” she told me. Leave it to her to make fun of me when I’m furious. All I could do was cry and whimper, “You forgot me!” as she hugged me and laughed. She had to wait for the florist to open so she got caught up in traffic. Later that night we got a text from a friend that there was a short write up about me in the paper. A result of my conversation with a journalist from Globo at the Marriage Equality rally.
- My 25th birthday
BACK WITH MICHELE IN BRASIL
The whole way home we just held each other, unable to grasp the reality of being together after so long. It was weird to be held, touched, kissed after 6 months without contact. It was an amazing feeling. Michele was nervous about showing me our new apartment since she had to pick it out alone but I knew it would be perfect. When I left in October, she moved out of our place to stay with her mom since it would only be a few months before she was supposed to come meet me in the U.S. Our new apartment is in Botafogo, my favorite neighborhood in Rio. I’m excited to start over in a new place with a fresh perspective on the city.
LIFE IN RIO
It has been indescribably wonderful being back in the same place with Mi. We turned in the necessary paperwork to start the 2-year permanence process and in a week or two I can legally work in Brazil. Mi works as a receptionist at a hostel in Ipanema and is studying to get her Public Administration degree on-line while I look for jobs in tourism, translation or with international/cultural exchange programs. It’s great to be back in Rio with my friends but I feel that I will always live my life divided. I have friends and Michele’s family here, people that I love and always want to be close by. But I also have my friends and family in the U.S. who I miss every single day. I know now that this will never be something that will be completely resolved. It will always be an ongoing lesson in adaptation to love in two languages.