A new US government policy may make it impossible for some LGBT UN staff to live together with their partners in the United States.
Starting today, UN staff, including those working at global headquarters in New York, will need proof of marriage to secure visas allowing their partners to reside with them in the US. This will have an insidious impact on same-sex couples from countries that ban same-sex marriage or only offer civil unions.
Since 2009, UN staff working in the United States have brought their partners into the country without showing a marriage license. Now, domestic partners of UN staff who are already in the United States could face deportation “unless they submit the required proof of marriage.” Those not yet in the country will need to show they’re married to secure a visa, potentially forcing those living in countries without marriage equality to choose between a posting at UN headquarters or family separation.
UN staff come from around the world, and in the vast majority of countries same-sex marriage is not legal. Only 25 countries provide for marriage equality, although Austria, Taiwan and Chile are expected to revise their laws soon. In over 70 countries, however, homosexual conduct remains illegal and in many, anyone found “guilty” can be sentenced to harsh punishments including years in prison or even public caning.
UN staff seeking US visas to work at headquarters could theoretically get married in one of the 25 countries that allows same-sex marriage. However, in many situations registering a marriage could put same-sex couples at risk in a way that privately providing evidence of a domestic partnership would not have done. One Nigerian man (not a UN staffer) who married his same-sex partner abroad reported that both he and his family members in Nigeria received death threats as a result. Egypt, Tunisia, Cameroon, Tanzania, Indonesia, Uganda, Russia, and many other countries have arrested people for same-sex conduct.
While US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made his personal opposition to marriage equality known, this latest policy reversal does not fit trends worldwide. For example, in a July ruling, Hong Kong’s highest court directed the government to recognize an unmarried same-sex couple for visa purposes.
The US government should recognize, as it had for almost nine years until today, that requiring a marriage as proof of bona fide partnership is a bad and cruel policy, one that replicates the terrible discrimination many LGBT people face in their own countries, and should be immediately reversed.