New UN marriage equality policy looking rather unequal

Assuming it manages to bubble up through all of the SCOTUS confirmation news in your feed this week, you may be hearing something about a new State Department policy concerning visas for United Nations workers bringing their spouses or significant others into the United States. It’s being billed as an initiative aimed at leveling the playing field between straight and gay workers at Turtle Bay who apply for a visa for their partner. Under previous rules established during Barack Obama’s first term, gay workers could have visas issued for their partners despite their marital status while heterosexual couples had to provide proof of marriage to have the visa issued.

Starting yesterday, gay couples will also need to be married to obtain this benefit. And those unmarried gay partners who already have a visa are being given a deadline to either get hitched or get out of the country. (NBC News)

The State Department on Monday began imposing a new policy that restricts visas for the same-sex partners of staff of U.S.-based international organizations, such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The policy, announced earlier this year, ends a policy spearheaded by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that allowed these same-sex partners to obtain a spousal visa, also known as the G-4 visa. Now, according to the new policy, the United States will issue a G-4 visa to a partner only if the couple is legally married.

The State Department’s website on G-4 visas currently states: “Effective immediately, U.S. Embassies and Consulates will adjudicate visa applications that are based on a same-sex marriage in the same way that we adjudicate applications for opposite gender spouses.”

These are G-4 visas, a special class of document only issued to workers involved in international organizations and the United Nations who have business in the United States. They are also issued to family members in some circumstances.

Under the policy enacted yesterday, the unmarried partners of UN workers have 30 days to get married or leave the country. The obvious issue they are raising is that well over 100 of the UN’s member nations do not recognize gay marriages and some, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, still execute people for being gay.

Just to be clear, the policy first enacted during Hillary Clinton’s time heading the State Department was unfair to begin with. It basically created an exception to an existing rule, allowing unmarried couples who were gay to obtain G-4 visas for partners while denying that opportunity to straight unmarried couples. Given the contentious battles over gay marriage, you might see the rationale for doing that, but the policy still should have been applied evenly.

But this change doesn’t seem to address the underlying issue at all. Either we’re going to offer G-4 visas to the partners of UN workers or we aren’t. And if we are, telling a couple from a country that executes gays to go home and get married isn’t much of an option at all. But perhaps there’s another solution available.

The primary question to answer is whether or not being married is the correct requirement for issuing a G-4 visa to the partner of a worker. It’s a requirement which probably weeds out those who would abuse the system by claiming that their buddy is their partner just to get them a visa. Even worse, unscrupulous workers could make that claim for people willing to pay them for a visa. So if marriage is the correct qualifier, could we not allow workers from countries where gay marriage is banned to marry in New York, thus meeting the requirement? Those laws vary from state to state, but it’s worth looking into. The couple would be under no obligation to let their government back home know they’d gotten hitched.

The other option is to drop the marriage requirement for everyone, including straight couples. Perhaps they could sign a contract saying that they are partners, sharing finances and a domicile, etc. under penalty of losing their visas if it’s proven that they were falsely making the claim. This is also an imperfect solution, but either choice is better than what we’ve had for the past seven years or the new policy in place now.