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A Minority Within a Minority

While some same-sex Hispanic couples enjoy new benefits, others fight for legal equality and acceptance

Two cultures, more challenges

Marcela Aguilar, 40, a public health manager in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, was born in Guatemala City, where gays and lesbians are not allowed to marry. Her fiancée, Ana, 43, comes from Mexico City, which passed a marriage equality law in December 2009.

The couple plans to marry in Maryland — where they live and which came close to passing marriage equality legislation in 2010 — when it’s legal to do so. “I live in the United States by choice,” Aguilar says, noting that laws in other countries, such as Argentina, make it much easier for gays and lesbians to live as they please.

Gay and lesbian Latinos in the United States, she says, negotiate the challenges of being homosexual in two cultures.  In the United States, for example, “people know we’re a couple,” she says. “We live openly and freely. Gay people are more visible on the streets and in the media.

“In Guatemala,” she says, “you don’t see [open homosexuality]. And if you see it, you don’t talk about it. You censor everything you say. It’s very tiring to be on guard day after day after day. People get beaten up and killed.”

It took her mother 15 years to tell relatives that her daughter was a lesbian. “Tears. Years of tears,” says Aguilar, whose relationship with her mom is repaired but still tenuous.

Of all the indignities she’s endured from her family, none was quite as distressing as two distinct conversations with her brother and sister, Aguilar says. Both professionals and raised in an upper-class Guatemalan household, they asked that she and her partner police their behavior and be “careful” when around their children. “I was upset,” she says, “very, very sad and upset.”

Aguilar’s upset, too, at how many fruits of a free and industrious society are denied her. “We are ineligible for thousands of benefits” available to the rest of the population, she says.

Under the 1995 Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government doesn’t recognize gay marriages. This means that same-sex couples, even if married in a state where it is legal, are ineligible for federal rights and protections in which marriage is a factor. In fact, there are at least 1,138 federal statutory provisions in which marital status can determine benefits and rights, according to a 2004 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. These include the ability to take family and medical leave or to receive Social Security survivors’ benefits or immigration benefits derived from being married to a U.S. citizen.

Even if a couple is legally married, federal law considers gay spouses to be domestic partners.  And while some employers might offer health insurance for domestic partners, whatever the employer pays for the partner is counted as taxable income. “We have to pay taxes on our health insurance. We can’t file joint tax returns,” says Aguilar. If Maryland doesn’t pass a gay marriage law in 2012, she and her partner plan to take their vows in Washington, D.C.

You may also like: Same-sex divorce.

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