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AIDS educator’s trip to Africa hindered by DOMA

by Laura Kiritsy
Thursday Mar 20, 2008

Jason Hair-Wynn arrived at his Attleboro home on March 13 to find an envelope from the U.S. Department of State's National Passport Center in New Hampshire that he thought contained his new passport, a necessity for the month-long trip he'll be taking this summer to do HIV/AIDS and health education with youngsters in Ghana, Africa. Instead, Hair-Wynn's old passport fell out of the envelope, along with a letter denying his request for a new passport that would reflect the legal name change he made when he and his husband married in Massachusetts.

The passport was denied because the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) only recognizes heterosexual marriages for federal purposes. "Therefore, the marriage certificate issued by Sudbury, Massachusetts, which you have submitted in support of your name change, is not acceptable as evidence for recognizing an immediate name change on the basis of marriage," the U.S. Department of State informed Hair-Wynn in its letter, a copy of which Hair-Wynn provided to Bay Windows. Ironically, the letter addressed Hair-Wynn by his married name.

Hair-Wynn was shocked. "I just sat there and I was like, I can't even process this," said Hair-Wynn, 26. "It's so different when you see it in writing and a professional form and I just kept thinking, 'Wow, this is legal discrimination. This is absurd.'"

Hair-Wynn declined to identify his spouse, because he said his husband is a member of the U.S. military.

Michele Granda, an attorney with Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, said her organization has fielded about 50 calls describing situations similar to Hair-Wynn's since civil marriage rights for same-sex couples became available on May 17, 2004.

"The federal government will accept a marriage certificate as evidence of a legal name change for a different-sex married couple; they just won't accept the same exact document as evidence of a legal name change from a same-sex married couple," said Granda. "It's the same evidence of name change, it's the same legal status, they're just insisting when it comes to same-sex couples that the federal government can override Massachusetts name change law and ignore the rights of Massachusetts citizens."

Hair-Wynn's married name is reflected on all of his other identifying documents, such as his driver's license and his Social Security card. The State Department letter states that Hair-Wynn could receive a valid passport reflecting his name change if he can provide a certified copy of the court order documenting the change or if he can provide documentation proving "customary use" of his married name - meaning that he has lived under the name for at least a period of five years. Neither of those options is available to Hair-Wynn; he has only been married since November 2005 and because he initiated his name change on his marriage license application - a routine process for heterosexual couples - as opposed to the probate court, there is no court order documenting the change. If Hair-Wynn decides to make his name change legal through the probate court, it will come at a cost of about $135, said Granda. He's already out the $75 fee required to apply for his rejected passport.

"And the worst part for me is that all I’m trying to do is good. I’m trying to go help people and in turn I have to get over so many hurdles."

Right now, Hair-Wynn would rather concentrate on raising money for his trip to Africa - he is scheduled to leave on July 30 - than dealing with a discriminatory bureaucracy. "I guess what I'm going to be forced to do is go back to my maiden name, which is going to be a lot of work," he said. "I'd rather focus my time on fundraising than having to prove who I am based on who I love."

He and a colleague, Kimberly Andrade, both of whom are HIV/AIDS education professionals in Southeastern Mass., founded WeSpreadTheTruth.org, a website dedicated to raising awareness about and money for their trip to Africa, as well to solicit donations of materials that will help them do their work once there. The two are currently developing a curriculum aimed at educating Ghanian children about their bodies in relation to HIV/AIDS, health and sanitation. Their work is being done in partnership with Village Volunteers, a Seattle-based nonprofit that collaborates with rural non-governmental organizations to implement sustainable solutions for community survival, education and growth. Village Volunteers customizes international volunteer opportunities for service-minded people in Kenya, Ghana, India and Nepal.

Hair-Wynn said that when he returned to his local passport center at the Attleboro post office on March 14, he broke down in tears when explaining his dilemma to the clerk, who he said was sympathetic but was powerless to help him.

"I was trying to hold back my tears and it just came to a point where I was like, I feel demoralized," Hair-Wynn said. "I feel like I'm not a person, I feel like I'm an immigrant trying to get into the country. I live here. And the worst part for me is that all I'm trying to do is good. I'm trying to go help people and in turn I have to get over so many hurdles."

"We think in Massachusetts that, okay, we're able to get married, but it goes beyond that," he added. "What's the deal if you can get married but you're still discriminated against on so many levels?"

Granda said Hair-Wynn may have some options in the short term that might ensure he'll be able to travel to Africa come July. One is to order his plane ticket under his maiden name and carry the State Department rejection letter in the event he's asked why his passport doesn't correlate to the rest of his identifying documents. "That might be his best short-term measure," said Granda. He could also request what's called a "known as" passport, which is issued at the discretion of the passport agency. The passport lists both a person's legal name and the non-legal name by which they are known. "I think that's insulting, to have same-sex couples have to travel under an alias," Granda acknowledged. "But it may be one effective way to do something now that recognizes the consistency of all your papers." But she also noted that "known as" passports could raise suspicion at security checks.

Short of repealing DOMA, the only other hope for a long-term solution to inconsistencies in local and federal marriage law is legislation currently pending on Beacon Hill to permit same-sex couples to substitute their marriage licenses for the other types of records that the passport agency will recognize to verify a legal name change.

"The federal government shouldn't be able to pick and choose whether you're married and what your name should be," said Granda

Copyright Bay Windows. For more articles from New England's largest GLBT newspaper, visit www.baywindows.com


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