“I’m not an expatriate,” Benjamin Anderson insisted as he and his husband-to-be, Mattia Lumaca, waited in the Manhattan City Clerk’s Office December 7 for an officiant to perform their wedding ceremony. “I’m 100-percent American. I am a patriot. I love my country and I love my husband, and I don’t want to give up either.”
It was a bittersweet moment in an afternoon that mixed tears of sadness with exuberant joy.
Anderson, a 13-year veteran of the Coast Guard, and Lumaca, an Italian citizen, were due to celebrate their wedding that evening with a dim sum meal and tickets to “The Addams Family,” then spend two more days in New York before heading off to Italy — in exile from America, at least for now.
With Anderson on full disability — following service-related chemical exposure more than two decades ago and a catastrophic surgical mishap in 2006 — and Lumaca’s US student visa expiring, their immediate future is fraught with obstacles and uncertainty.
Anderson, 55, and Lumaca, 41, met online about five years ago. In February of 2007, Lumaca visited Anderson at his Salt Lake City home on a tourist visa, and “One week was long enough” to know what their relationship would mean to them, the younger man recalled.
On December 7 of that year, Lumaca returned to Salt Lake City, armed with a student visa to study English and a ring for Anderson.
Four years to the day later, the couple exchanged wedding rings at the municipal chapel in the Clerk’s Office, in a ceremony witnessed by Cinzia Araldi, Lumaca’s best friend from his Italian hometown near Parma.
“My whole life, I’ve waited for this guy here,” Anderson said, his eyes welling up.
That life has thrown its share of curve balls at him.
Anderson’s mother, who died when he was 13, was ill much of the time, and he spent his childhood after age seven in foster homes away from his roots in Utah. When he aged out of the foster system at 18, he was living in California but returned to Salt Lake City, where he got the message that an openly gay life was not in the cards.
“I had the idea that I’d quit being gay and get married,” he said. “I married a woman who knew I was gay. I wasn’t dishonest.”
As the result of that marriage, Anderson now has a 33-year-old son, whom he and Lumaca are leaving behind in Utah.
Though he married — the first time — young, he wasn’t yet ready to settle down in Salt Lake City. At 19, he fulfilled a desire he’d had since he was ten years old — to join the Coast Guard to “save lives and be a hero.” During his time in the Coast Guard — from 1976 until 1989 — Anderson re-upped twice and reached the rank of yeoman, serving in an administrative post.
A desk job didn’t insulate him from danger, however. After exposure to toxic chemicals, “I started getting sicker all the time and my heart weakened.” He left the service under “medical retirement.”
A year before the couple met, Anderson experienced a second medical trauma while undergoing treatment to remove a cyst from his thyroid. His vocal chords were cut during surgery and he went into a coma. Ten days later, he woke up on life support.
Since then, he has suffered four heart attacks and now also contends with diabetes and glaucoma.
“My health has grown gradually worse in the past year,” Anderson said. “I need a heart transplant, but right now I am too sick to have that done.”
In their four years together, Lumaca has become the main source of care for Anderson, who uses a rolling walker with a seat and fatigues easily. However, since Lumaca has no right to work in the US, the couple has struggled to get by largely on Anderson’s modest disability benefits. With Lumaca’s student visa about to expire, even that option began to fade.
“Some told us, ‘Oh, you can go off-status,’” Anderson said. “But we won’t do that. We’re not illegal people.”
According to Immigration Equality, the advocacy group helping the couple, there are roughly 36,000 binational same-sex couples in the US, all of whom, in one way or other, must cope with a legal system that does not treat gay and lesbian couples the same way it would an American citizen seeking to win permanent residency for their different-sex spouse.
The past year has offered at least some of those couples hope. In February, the Obama administration announced it would no longer go to court to argue that the federal Defense of Marriage Act — the principal hurdle facing binational couples who can now marry in six states and the District of Columbia — is constitutional. In the past few months, the Department of Homeland Security has put in place new procedures for weeding out pending deportations that don’t involve individuals with criminal records or posing a national security risk.
Several gay and lesbian couples — including one in New York and another in New Jersey — have benefited from this new administration approach by having the deportation cases hanging over their heads closed. But, in an effort to “unclog” what Homeland Security officials say is a 300,000-case backload, progress is slow and uneven. According to Lavi Soloway, the immigration rights attorney who won reprieve for the New York and New Jersey couples, though government officials have said LGBT family ties will be acknowledged in their review of outstanding cases, that issue has not been explicitly addressed in written guidelines.
Lumaca was not the subject of deportation efforts, but the couple’s time had run out.
“It will be challenging, but it’s the only solution,” Lumaca said of their departure for Italy.
Though he had a career as a land surveyor and contractor back in Parma, the couple will likely not stay there. They need to find a home somewhere in the European Union where their marriage will be recognized and Anderson will have easy access to a US military facility where he can receive comprehensive medical care. When they earlier visited Lumaca’s mother in Parma, the closest US base was a three-hour drive and it did not have full-service care.
Despite their apprehensions, the couple was clearly energized for their upcoming travel, though melancholy was never far from their minds. Outfitted in pink suspenders and New York-bought shoes for the wedding, Anderson’s voice broke as he said, “This is the choice I’ve been given. My country or my love.”
Then in a quiet, more sober tone, he added, “So, you know, what do you do? I’m just hoping my country will bring me home. Bring us home. Bring me and my husband home. We need America and we think America needs us.”