by Andrea Castillo | The Oregonian
They met in class: Carmen Gutierrez a recent Salvadoran immigrant learning English, Jennifer “Jensi” Albright a volunteer teacher well-versed in Spanish.
Eight years after that day in 2004, the 43-year-old women found themselves in love and in line to be wed after Washington’s voter-approved same-sex marriage law took effect.
At 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 6, they became gay couple number 205 to get a marriage license in the state and make their relationship official.
But they held off celebrating publicly until Saturday, when they used their marriage as a political statement in favor of bridging immigration reform with gay rights. Albright and Gutierrez united with Causa, a statewide heavily Latino immigrant rights group, and held their ceremony during its annual Immigrant Action Day at Chemeketa Community College in Salem.
Gutierrez and Albright’s certificate doesn’t count in Oregon, which allows same-sex couples domestic partnerships but not marriage. However, that’s not their biggest issue.
Being undocumented means Gutierrez, who was a teacher in El Salvador and now cleans houses, lives today worrying she could be deported tomorrow. Being gay means she doesn’t qualify for the same path to citizenship afforded to heterosexuals. If Gutierrez were a man, Albright could sponsor her for a green card. Because they are both women, their marriage isn’t recognized by the federal government.
“I want the same rights that my parents have, the same rights of other married couples,” said Albright, an event organizer at Good Sport Promotion in Portland. “I shouldn’t be punished for having found the love of my life.”
At the national level, President Barack Obama included gay couples in his immigration reform proposal. The outline released last month by a group of eight bipartisan senators did not.
There is a new push to join the two issues under the Uniting American Families Act. The bipartisan bill, reintroduced this month, would give gay couples the same immigration rights as straight couples.
The issue has evoked fierce lobbying on both sides.
Jim Moore, director of Pacific University’s Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation, said the outcome depends almost entirely on a Supreme Court decision, expected in June, on the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as being between a man and woman. If it is upheld, lawmakers in favor of gay rights would have less authority to push the issue.
“If that context changes, I think gay marriage will become folded into immigration reform,” Moore said. “If not, there’s a good chance they would remain two separate issues. It is part of a power struggle in (Washington) D.C.”
Gutierrez had visited family in the United States a few times before overstaying her visa. Home in El Salvador stopped feeling sweet when she, an unmarried rarity in the conservative Catholic society, got old enough for people to start wondering.
It became too difficult to continue living with political turmoil, corruption and threats because of her sexual orientation, she said.
Albright, a native of Maine and a Portland transplant, was brought up being taught that being gay is normal, she said.
In the beginning, Albright said, their relationship was kept secret. Gutierrez was used to not being accepted and wasn’t ready to come out.
“It was the strangest thing to always be introduced as her friend,” Albright said. “It was a struggle because we have a life together and we are friends, but we’re also family.”
Eventually, Gutierrez gained comfort in Portland, first with her church’s acceptance and finally with her mother’s.
At the wedding ceremony, Gutierrez and Albright stood on either side of Rev. Gabriel Lamazares of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Northeast Portland, each clutching a small bouquet of flowers. They wore pantsuits and nervous smiles. Later they would also wear “Just Married” T-shirts.
In front of a crowd of about 200, including extended family from all over the U.S., the couple sang religious hymns and John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.” They exchanged vows, embraced then raised their arms in victory.
Though the fear of uncertainty loomed overhead, it ceased to matter, at least for the moment. Yes, Gutierrez and Albright acknowledged there is more work to be done for equality, but Saturday was about them — their love and their hope for the future.