BEIRUT: Last month, England and Wales approved a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. In June, the United States Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, granting same-sex spouses full federal rights. Earlier this year, France’s National Assembly also voted to recognize same-sex marriage, a decision that was upheld by the Constitutional Court. As more countries recognize gay marriage, same-sex couples are finally able to avail themselves of the legal rights enjoyed by opposite-sex couples, including the right to apply for residency or citizenship for foreign spouses.
This is welcome news for Laith and Pascal (not their real names), who met in Beirut four-and-a-half years ago through mutual friends and have been together ever since. Laith was born in the U.S. to Arab parents and also holds French citizenship. Pascal is Lebanese.
The couple is currently based in Lebanon, but like many Lebanese, they are considering moving abroad for both professional and personal reasons. Until this year, their options were few, as Pascal’s Lebanese passport limits the places he can live and work. But with the recent decisions by France and the U.S., they can plan for a future together as a married couple in either country.
Both Laith and Pascal denied that the rulings on gay marriage had changed their views on the institution, but they welcomed the legal rights that would make it easier for them to stay together and eventually start a family.
“We had always talked about it as a legal contract,” Laith said of their stance on marriage.
“It’s for paperwork, taxes and visas and such, so that we can live and work in the same cities,” he said.
“Since the ruling, [marriage] has been a recurring theme in our conversations, but in terms of getting sucked into something we don’t believe in, like this giant wedding industry ...” he trailed off, before adding with a smile, “But I wouldn’t be opposed to a ritual of some kind.”
About five weeks after the Supreme Court decision, the U.S. State Department sent out instructions to every embassy and consulate around the world, making clear that same-sex couples and their minor children were now eligible for the same immigration benefits as opposite-sex spouses and should be processed accordingly.
A week later, the State Department hosted a Google+ Hangout session to answer questions and address “transitional issues” relating to the visa procedures for same-sex couples.
A spokesperson for the American Embassy in Lebanon confirmed they “are following the same posture worldwide,” but would not confirm whether any same-sex couples had applied to the embassy in Beirut yet.
The long-term legal implications for binational couples will play out over time. Countries such as Lebanon, which do not recognize same-sex marriage, may nonetheless be asked to process paperwork related to same-sex couples who were married abroad, or to their children. At the very least, countries where same-sex marriage is legal may expect Lebanese authorities to process residencies for the same-sex spouses of their diplomatic staff.
“What’s going to happen when we have children and we’re coming to Lebanon?” Laith wondered. “What will that interaction at the border be like? I think about that at least once a week.”
Same-sex marriage, even if it is conducted abroad, adds another layer to the convoluted personal status laws that already dictate marriage, divorce, inheritance and custody in Lebanon.
Youmna Makhlouf, a lawyer who is currently writing her PhD thesis on the individual in Lebanese law at the Panthéon-Assas University in Paris, said whether the child of a same-sex union is considered Lebanese by authorities depends on the biological parentage.
Any children of a same-sex couple, whether biological or adopted, would be registered as illegitimate, said Makhlouf, because gay marriage is considered “contrary to public order” and would therefore not be recognized.
This would affect the child’s ability to inherit, although she added that an adopted child would likely not be granted citizenship in any case.
Ironically, she added, same-sex marriage grants the children of lesbian couples the rights denied to children of Lebanese women married to foreign men. Because the marriage is not recognized, the child of a Lebanese woman in a same-sex marriage is considered illegitimate, and is therefore eligible for citizenship. The biological child of a Lebanese father would automatically receive citizenship as well.
“The problem in Lebanon is that you have an open society but we do not push for different kinds of lifestyles,” including living together as unmarried heterosexual couples, she said. “We are based as a society in religious marriage. ... We don’t push for the freedom of choice.”
“The fight for the freedom to have any kind of hetero relationship and the fight for recognition of homosexuality is the same fight; it’s the freedom to live how we want.”
Makhlouf went on to say that the solution was not just recognizing other types of marriages, but other types of relationships, pointing to examples of European countries where couples are granted rights based on cohabitation, not marriage.
Likewise, she said, children born to unmarried couples, like same-sex couples, were branded “illegitimate” in the eyes of the courts and could not inherit as much as legitimate children.
While some U.S.-based gay rights organizations have voiced concern for same-sex couples applying for fiance or marriage visas from countries where homosexuality is illegal, Makhlouf thought it unlikely that the authorities would probe the immigration processes of foreign countries. She added, however, that the foreign partners of Lebanese citizens could be denied residency in Lebanon if General Security discovers evidence of a same-sex relationship during the course of its investigation.
Makhlouf predicted the Lebanese state would not change any of its policies due to external pressure from its allies, although it might make special exceptions for the same-sex spouses of foreign diplomats.
“We are not seeing that the Lebanese legal system is changing because of relationships with friendly countries,” she said.
“Nor do we see that foreign countries are really pushing for the Lebanese to recognize individual rights in personal status legislation.”