April 14, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
Unitarians rally for LGBT rights, immigration reform

Rally participants stood in a line, holding signs with letters made up of petition signatures on Wednesday. (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

Activists affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association rallied Wednesday upon delivering 15,000 signatures to Congress promoting LGBT rights and immigration reform.

About a dozen participants gathered on the East Lawn of Capitol Hill to support the effort and hear from local religious leaders and residents about the importance of advancing such issues. The event was coordinated by Standing on the Side of Love, a campaign sponsored by the Unitarian Church.

At one point, as participants stood in a line, they held signs with letters made up of petition signatures spelling out the slogan, “We Stand on the Side of Love.”

Adam Gerhardstein, campaign manager for Standing on the Side of Love, said participants gathered with “a message of inclusion, encouragement and support.”

“While we have a small group here today, we represent a much larger constituency,” he said. “Over 15,000 people during this congressional break sent in their words of support for the immigrant community, for the gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. They ask for immigration reform. They ask for full equality under all matters governed by law for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.”

Gerhardstein said issues of immigration reform and LGBT rights “intersect much more than people ever think” because “many people are gay immigrants, many people have partners who are gay immigrants.”

Under current immigration law, LGBT Americans can’t sponsor same-sex partners who are foreign nationals for residency in the United States. Activists are seeking a provision in immigration reform that would allow LGBT people to sponsor their foreign partners for residency, similar to how straight people can sponsor their spouses.

Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, which helped to coordinate the event, said the effort from the Unitarian Association was particularly important in pushing for LGBT inclusion in immigration reform.

“This is significant and important because the faith community is such a critical part of the immigration reform coalition,” he said. “Unitarians have been one of the strongest and consistent voices calling for a bill that includes LGBT families.”

The 15,000 signatures include 10,000 signatures calling for full equality for LGBT people and 5,000 signatures calling on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Gerhardstein told DC Agenda the petitions were split into two categories because his group had been working on gathering the signatures of LGBT rights longer than the immigration signatures.

“The important thing is that everybody who signed those petitions and postcards did it because they stand on the side of love with people who are being marginalized or oppressed just because of who they are,” he said.

Among those who spoke at the rally was Erwin de Leon, a gay D.C. resident and DC Agenda contributor, who married his spouse in D.C. last week.

De Leon said “the hard reality” of his marriage is that his license “isn’t worth much outside the [local] jurisdiction.” He noted that he and his spouse feel the need to take their living wills with them sometimes when they travel in case of a medical emergency.

“We both dread the thought of not being able to be by the side of the one injured [or] worse, not being able to make the life and death decisions only a spouse should make,” he said.

De Leon decried the federal government’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriage under the Defense of Marriage Act, which means he and his partner aren’t entitled to each other’s Social Security benefits and would have to pay taxes on the inheritance they leave to each other.

Another problem facing de Leon is his status as an immigrant. Because the federal government doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, de Leon’s spouse can’t sponsor him for his green card.

“Even though I consider the United States my home, I lived here legally for several years, and in my heart, I know I’m as American as my native born cousin, I have no recourse but to wait for my mother’s sponsorship to come through, which will take many years unless the immigration system is reformed,” he said.

De Leon said if he were in an opposite-sex marriage, his spouse could apply for a green card for him that could probably be obtained by the year’s end.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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