By: Laura Castro Lindarte
In June 26, 2013, the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned by the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Windsor. The Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, said that federally marriage was defined as a union between a man and a woman. In other words, even if a same-sex couple got married in a state that allowed for same-sex marriage, their marriage would not be valid federally because the federal government only recognized heterosexual marriages. This meant that the couple could not use their marriage to get certain federal benefits or rights that heterosexual spouses could get.
In particular, the law meant that if an undocumented immigrant married an American citizen of the same sex, she or he could not gain legal status in the way that someone in a heterosexual marriage was able to do. Many American citizens found themselves in the situation of falling in love with an immigrant of the same sex and not being able to provide them with legal status. This could result in their separation, since the immigrant might not be able to stay in the U.S. legally, or in the immigrant staying in the U.S. without status.
Eduardo Navarro lived in the U.S. and remained undocumented even after his marriage, despite his husband, Jenky Santiuste, being an American citizen. The Supreme Court decision was a turning point for them.
I met Navarro in his apartment in Arlington, Virginia. The first thing he told me was that his husband was in Washington D.C. but would be back soon. I sat down on a long leather sofa while Navarro sat to my left on a smaller couch. He had a kind face with big brown eyes, a button nose and a thick brown beard.
The interview was translated from Spanish and edited for brevity and clarity.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
My name is Eduardo Henry Navarro. I’m 54 years old. My partner is 45. I’m nine years older than him, but he’s the one in control. He’s the motor of everything we have built. His name is Jenky Santiuste. He is Cuban. I’m from Panama. We have been through the good and the bad.
He taught me that to get to the root of a problem, you have to communicate. When we have an issue, we calm ourselves down, and talk about the issue. We have had heterosexual couples ask us what is the secret to a lasting relationship and I tell them that it is communication.
I met my partner in Panama in 1992 or 1993. A month later, I moved in with him. He had moved to Panama from Cuba and had made a life in Panama in five years. His mom lived in the United States and helped him get legal status here, so he had to leave Panama and come to Washington D.C. He told me “OK, I’m going to go get a job and do everything possible so you can come be with me.” Two months after he came to the United States, I came. It was September 3, 1997.
We got married in November 24, 2012. I had been living here for a lot of years undocumented. I was always afraid that ICE would get me. I would have dreams about it and everything. As soon as they approved same-sex marriage, he proposed to me and we got married. A year later, we applied for my papers. [They didn’t apply until a year after their marriage because they were not allowed to do so until the U.S. v. Windsor decision in June 2013.] My mom had died and I hadn’t been able to go to her funeral [Navarro’s mother died after their wedding, but before Navarro got legal status. He was not able to go to Panama for her funeral because, as an undocumented immigrant, he could not leave the United States and legally come back.] I told him that I wanted to go for the anniversary of her death. I got my residency in like…four weeks.
In reality, we got married October 24, the day before my birthday. We got married in a courthouse in Washington D.C. A month later, we got married through the church. That’s when we had the reception.
How was it growing up in Panama as a gay man?
It was a little hard. First of all, your parents. I was my dad’s first son. You know that fathers, when they have a son, are like, “This is my son, he has my last name and my name.” But I was born this way. Since I can remember, I always preferred looking at men, even though I had relationships with women. It was because of what people would say about me. When I turned 18, I decided, “This is what I’m and this is what I’m going to be.”
My parents always knew. When I was a kid they saw it, they hit me, and told me that it was not good. But after that, my parents accepted me. They had a great relationship with my partner. My mom would talk with my partner more than with me.
Beyond family, how was it with friends and society as a whole in Panama?
In Latin countries everyone is always pointing and criticizing. They always say, ‘ay no,’ the word they say is a little ugly but, “the neighborhood maricon.” [Spanish slang for gay man]. I was always careful. I would always go far where no one would know me to… go out with people. But people knew what I was.
My mom would say, “Well that is the son I was given, what can I do?” (Laughs) That was the only thing that mattered to me, my mom. I would even take her to gay clubs with me. We would dance together. She would even dance with my partner. Here he comes.
At this point, Santiuste arrived. He had olive skin and was balding. He also had a thick beard. He sat down next to Navarro. They were sharing the small one-person armchair.
How did you two meet?
Navarro: I was in a gay club and he arrived. We looked at each other and began to talk. That’s when our life begun.
When you met, did you know that was the person you wanted to be with?
Santiuste: Yes. When we met he told me, “my longest relationship lasted seven years.” I told him, “hopefully we can beat that.” We have been together for 22. I hadn’t had a partner before him.
Navarro: I captured him young. He says I’m a cougar. He was 20 and I was 29.
You spent so much time living together, you with status and him undocumented. How was that?
Santiuste: He was always living in the shadows and I took control of everything. I knew that there was a possibility of me giving him citizenship, but it was hard until we got the opportunity.
Navarro: Same-sex marriage was approved first, but not the ability to give your partner status.
Santiuste: I told him, they approved same-sex marriage, let’s get married. It won’t be long before they approve the other thing. We won’t lose anything [Navarro and Santiuste got married before U.S. v. Windsor was decided in June 2013 so they had to wait about a year to use their marriage to change Navarro’s status.]
Do you think that was fair? For you to live together as any other couple, yet not have the same benefits.
Santiuste: It wasn’t fair because there’re so many same-sex couples. They have the same problems as heterosexual couples. Yet we didn’t have the same rights. If two people love each other, gender shouldn’t matter, especially if they show that they can have a life together.