The reversal of DOMA came about three years too late for one same-sex couple.
Tired of waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, Jason Stuart Walt of Essex decided in 2010 to join his soon-to-be husband, Sylvain Brazeau, in Montreal.
The couple, who had been dating for five years, decided that because DOMA prevented Brazeau from obtaining a green card as the spouse of a U.S. citizen, they would pursue a more certain route in Canada.
Walt, a lifelong Vermonter born in Barre, unsuccessfully bet on DOMA’s sticking around for another 10 years or so.
Supreme Court decisions can be notoriously difficult to predict, and forecasting the lifespan of federal legislation is an even trickier affair. Walt was off by over a decade with his estimate on DOMA.
The couple learned after the court’s decision that had they applied for a green card in the U.S., the Immigration and Citizenship Services was holding those applications in the event the law was overturned and Brazeau would have been on his way to citizenship.
The road to Montreal
The pair, now in their early 40s, met on New Year’s Eve in 2005 at a club in Montreal. Walt was taking a vacation; Brazeau was bartending. They started dating soon after, their relationship anchored by weekend visits. But after years of commuting, “it was getting very tiring for us,” Walt said. In 2010, they were married in Canada and made plans to settle down in Montreal.
“I didn’t want to leave my family and friends, and the job, and the place where I lived.”
Jason Stuart Walt
Taking the green card out of the equation, there was little question Walt and Brazeau would have settled on the other side of the border, in Vermont.
“Financially, it would have been better for him to come to the States,” Walt said. Brazeau speaks English, and he works in the service industry, and it would have been straightforward for him to find work in Vermont, Walt said.
Walt did not speak French and had a good job — a higher-paying one than Brazeau’s — that he’d have to give up if he moved to Canada. And, he was reluctant to leave the state he’d been reared in, especially since he’s always felt a certain loyalty to Vermont for the progressive stance it’s taken toward LGBT residents.
“I’m a Vermonter, born and raised and, quite honestly, the state of Vermont has always been proactive in rights for gays and lesbians. I didn’t want to leave my family and friends, and the job, and the place where I lived,” Walt said.
But getting a green card for Brazeau was the sticking point — Walt couldn’t sponsor him as a spouse, since the federal government didn’t recognize same-sex marriages at the time.
Some foreign-born spouses stayed in the U.S. with a patchwork of student visas, biding time in the hopes that DOMA would be short-lived. But that only works for couples that can afford to have one half of the household paying tuition rather than bringing in a paycheck.
“I really didn’t foresee DOMA changing,” Walt said. “I didn’t expect it to get overturned for another 10 to 15 years.” That meant moving to Canada “was really our only route at the time.”
So Brazeau kept his job at the front desk of a Marriott Residence Inn in Montreal, and in June 2011, Walt gave up his job as a manager of school services with the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. (VSAC) and filed for permanent residency in Canada.
He knew that chances were slim that he would be able to find a comparable job across the border. At VSAC, Walt oversaw a team of 22 people who provided customer service assistance to financial aid offices, but, he explained, “managing and supervising people is very difficult when you don’t speak the language.”
Too late to change things
Had they known the end of DOMA would come a few years down the road, Walt said they probably would have held out. “If it was in sight, I think we would have stayed in Vermont.”
Becoming a permanent resident of Canada was an 18-month-long process, so Walt couldn’t start looking work right away. He made the most of the involuntary vacation — studying his family genealogy, learning French, meditating and picking up a lot of the household chores — but the time off took a financial toll.
“I basically liquidated most of my retirement savings so that I could spend some time living,” he said.
The move came with other expenses, too. Walt sold his house (for less than the appraised value) in Essex, and he had to leave his car behind because it wouldn’t have passed environmental muster under Canada’s vehicle standards. All in all, Walt estimates that the transition cost him $80,000.
Walt said he appreciates Montreal’s culture, likes the people and feels lucky to have a supportive spouse, but “there have certainly been days when it’s been lonely and depressing.”
Not having a job and not speaking French made it difficult for him to meet people. He stayed in digital contact with friends in Vermont, Skyping and emailing with them often, but it wasn’t enough to shake the isolation.
“In a lot of ways I felt like I had given up everything,” Walt said.
So, when the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, Walt was excited, but he also had “a little bit of an ‘oh, crap’ moment.”
“All my friends sent me messages saying, ‘DOMA passed, you can come back now!” Walt said.
But, $80,000 and a sacrificed job later, it’s not so simple. “I can’t possibly financially even consider thinking about that right now,” Walt said.
There are other factors behind his decision to stay. He’s already committed to a career change — in August, he’ll start school to become a barber. And after two years in Montreal, Walt said it would feel disloyal to ditch the country that recognized his marriage from the start.
He and Brazeau haven’t completely written off the possibility of relocating to Vermont but for now, he intends to try to make Montreal home.
“I really thought about the fact that this is a new start,” Walt said. “I want to give that a shot.”