Alison & Michele

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL

"Overnight, Michele and I became what was called, “love exiles”. This was the phrase used for same-sex binational couples who couldn’t immigrate to the U.S. because their spouse was from another country."

Tell us your love story!

My wife was born and raised in the largest slum in South America, called Rocinha. I use this word, “slum” because she does. She likes how it fits snugly within the Portuguese word, “deslumbrante” which means “brilliant” or “gorgeous”. I met her there in 2010 after graduating from college because I was running away from dismal job prospects in the aftermath of the financial crisis. I traveled to Rio with the expectation of teaching English in Rocinha for about five months, before leaving to join the Peace Corps in Colombia. I was a fish out of water and I think she could tell when I met her two weeks after my arrival. We lived a whirlwind romance in the span of a few months, both expecting that I would be leaving for Colombia. But as the time quickly approached for my departure, we both knew I wouldn’t be getting on the plane. We had each found, as the Brazilians say, “the other half to our orange”, so I stayed.

The process of getting married was difficult. Same-sex marriage had only just been legalized in Brazil and the documents still said things like, ”Husband” and “Wife”. We had to have the documents changed to “Spouse 1” and “Spouse 2”. We were bounced around to different offices and a few people told us not to get our hopes up because they were denying “people like us”. I quickly informed them that they could keep their opinions to themselves and just do their job. We knew we weren’t going to give up. At the time, we had no way of knowing that we were making history by fighting for these rights. After months of visiting offices and filing innumerous documents, we discovered that we were the first female couple in Rio to get married.

In 2012, only six months after our wedding, I left for New York in order to get a job and a place for us to live while she waited for her visa. I didn’t want us both arriving in the U.S. without jobs or a place to live. A few months later, on the day of her interview, she called me sobbing. She had been denied. Same-sex marriage was not legal in the U.S. at the time and they denied her because they knew we had been married in Brazil. 

Overnight, Michele and I became what was called, “love exiles”. This was the phrase used for same-sex binational couples who couldn’t immigrate to the U.S. because their spouse was from another country. At the time, DOMA, or the Defense of Marriage Act was still in place so marriage was only recognized between a man and a woman. Michele wouldn’t even be allowed to apply again for at least six months. Even though I had just built a semblance of stability to receive her, I knew I needed to pick back up and return to Brazil because we had no idea how long it would take for same-sex marriage to become legal in the U.S.

DOMA came down in June of 2013 - only three months after I made my way back to Brazil. We were lucky to celebrate this moment together. Not all same-sex binational couples had this luxury. We were finally allowed to apply for Michele's green card based on our marriage. They even gave her a tourist visa while we were waiting so we could spend Christmas with my family, who after four years of us being together, still hadn't met her yet. After this trip, we returned to Rio and waited for her green card together this time.

What we did started by accident, but by persisting through the difficult moments, we had the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the couples we helped through the marriage and immigration process. To this day, they make up some of our greatest friendships and we love getting to see them on this side of the world. We often look back on this rollercoaster ride and say we wouldn't have changed the way we got here because the journey made us stronger. One day, we’ll be able to tell people how the world once was and know we’ve made progress, if even just a little.

What was your ceremony like?

The ceremony was beautiful. We were at a venue called “Garden Party” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The ceremony was outdoors with lots of green scenery and trees. We had a short, non-religious ceremony surrounded by our friends and Michele’s family. We tried to break tradition wherever we could. Through a wedding dress sponsor, we were offered some very traditional wedding dresses but decided against it because it’s just not our style. I waited for Michele at the alter because so many said they assumed she would wait for me because of stereotypes we don’t agree with. We each had a best man and maid of honor walk us down the aisle. At the reception, we had lots of dancing and singing! Everyone was on their feet for most of the reception and per Brazilian tradition, we had a pretty extensive dessert table. This is basically a lot of bon bon type sweets that Brazilians have at parties such as brigadeiro (rolled up chocolate balls) and bem casados (Brazilian wedding cookies). We also had a caricature artist, a “photo” booth where guests made videos of themselves dancing with cartoon bodies and a caipirinha (Brazilian mixed drink) specialist making creative drinks to order.

Is there anything about your wedding that you would do differently?

One regret I have was not inviting more of my family and friends to the wedding. It was within the first few years of being out and I didn’t know how most people would react. Since I felt unsure, I didn’t want to risk worrying about it on my wedding day. I do wish my friends and family from the U.S. had been there though. Hopefully we will do another celebration in the next few years now that we are in the U.S.!

What was the most important lesson you learned while planning? What was your biggest wedding planning challenge and how did you overcome it?

I learned to let go. In the beginning, I was doing all of the planning but I reached a point where I pulled Michele in and said, “I need help”. It was hard because the planning took place over only a few months. It’s ok that not everything is perfect because I can guarantee, your guests won’t notice. It doesn’t need to be over the top if that doesn’t fit you. We wanted something low key and relaxed so that’s what we did. The biggest challenge was having our original venue drop us maybe a month or few weeks before the wedding. We were informed that they “discovered” we were a gay couple and they didn’t want to be associated with us. In Brazil, the name Alison is often a man’s name so this may have contributed to the initial confusion. It was a struggle because it was unexpected but a good reminder to stay alert because discrimination will not cease any time soon. Ultimately, it worked out so well for us because we had an amazing time at Garden Party, the venue that said they wanted to host us.

What does marriage mean to you?

Marriage is tough. It is a roller coaster ride. But knowing I have a best friend who I love so deeply to come home to every day is a great comfort in the midst of the ups and downs life takes. Marriage is a classroom. I am constantly learning about communication styles and the dance of tolerating and/or embracing each other’s differences and quirks. I thought we would have mastered this by now but even though we have been together for 9 years, this is still happening! I am learning from her how to be a better person in many ways as I think she learns a lot with me too. We’re a pretty solid team and we really lean into that in the hard times and the victories.

What does pride mean to you?

Pride for me is about learning to stick up for yourself and standing firm in your belief of who you are. We had a lot of pushback from different angles as we've walked through our marriage journey. Before being faced with these different challenges, I didn’t think about my identity as often but being in a same-sex marriage really put that in check. After everything we’ve been through, I have a greater understanding of what other minority populations are facing and work harder to support people with different experiences in my community. Pride for me means not only supporting the LGBTQ+ community but working harder to support other underrepresented populations as well.

What advice would you like to impart on our Queerly Beloved readers?

Make it exactly how YOU want it. I know there is a lot of pressure to do certain things at your wedding that are reflective of family and social traditions but it is a day that will fly by so quickly so you want to make sure it is just the way you want it. Traditions are important but make sure they are important to you. If you want to break tradition, do it! It will be a great memory to look back on.

Links

Ali + Michele's wedding video

Documentary piece on their relationship under DOMA

Washington Post article

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