Gay Israelis Celebrate Love in the Time of U.S. Visa Equality

Last week, two married same-sex couples became the first Israelis to reap the benefits of U.S. visa guidelines giving them the same rights as straight couples.

When Israeli Elad Ben-Yosef was offered a plum job at Microsoft in the United States this year, his excitement was marred by concern. Although he and his husband Idan Frumin were married in New York, when it came to applying for a U.S. visa, they didn’t have the same rights as opposite-sex married couples.

Microsoft sponsored Ben-Yosef for a work visa, but his husband wasn’t eligible for the derivative visa that was the standard for straight couples. This meant that Frumin would be forced to relocate as a tourist.

That is, until earlier this month, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that legally married same-sex spouses would receive the same treatment as opposite-sex spouses in visa applications. On Thursday, Ben-Yosef, 35, and Frumin, 33, became one of two couples to receive the first-ever derivative visas issued by the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to same-sex spouses of Israelis relocating to America on work visas.

Holders of a derivative visa can remain in the United States along with their spouse, they can study, and they can seek employment, although they need authorization from the Department of Homeland Security. Tourist visas, meanwhile, are issued for limited periods and don’t allow for working or studying.

Kerry's announcement came in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, thereby allowing married same-sex couples in the United States to receive federal benefits. "Gay rights are human rights, and our new visa regulations are an important step forward," says Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador in Israel.

Until two weeks ago, Frumin's visa status was the couple's biggest worry. As a tourist, Frumin would be forced to leave the United States periodically to renew his visa. "We weren't sure how we were going to do it, but we said if worst comes to worst, we'll go back to Israel," says Ben-Yosef.

Another wedding in America

The second couple who were issued the visa, Sergey Shepshelevich, 35, and Alexander Polyakov, 31, were in a similar bind. Shepshelevich, 35, a programmer with Microsoft in Israel who immigrated from Ukraine at 18, was offered a relocation package; like Ben-Yosef’s, to Seattle. The pair have been together for two years after meeting online, and they also married in the United States - in May. They relished the opportunity of living in America, where they feel it’s easier for gay couples to start a family; surrogacy and adoption are simpler than in Israel.

But Polyakov, who immigrated from Ukraine when he was 8, would also be forced to relocate with a tourist visa. Furthermore, having quit his sales job at El Al for the move, Polyakov's uncertain visa status and his limited options for keeping himself busy in their new home might take its toll on their relationship, the couple feared.

Ben-Yosef says that while Shapiro expressed his delight about the visas, the embassy’s consular team didn't seem to understand the significance of the policy change "until they saw us." With the derivative visa, Frumin, who is nearing the end of a PhD in neuroscience at the Weizmann Institute of Science, says he’ll be able to stay put with his husband and write up his doctoral thesis while applying for post-doctoral studies. And he’ll be able to open a bank account.

The two read about the upcoming changes in the media and booked an appointment at the U.S. Embassy on July 24. "At first they asked us to wait; they said they needed guidelines from the State Department,” says Ben-Yosef. “Within a week they brought us in and asked us if we would be happy to be photographed. We were happy to." The day the new visa guidelines came into place was "no less than history," he adds.

Gay marriage is not legally performed in Israel, although, following a 2006 ruling by the High Court of Justice, same-sex marriages performed in countries where it is legal are registered at the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration.

So both couples had little choice but to marry abroad. In fact, the only attendee at Frumin and Ben-Yosef's 2011 wedding was the witness, a friend from New York who shot the wedding video to boot. The day was bittersweet - the expense and distance meant that a ceremony with all their family and friends was out of the question.  

Shepshelevich and Polyakov's Seattle wedding was also small, although, thanks to an El Al employee discount, Polyakov's parents were able to join them. Following much pleading from family and friends, the couple organized another celebration in Israel. Some 190 people attended the July 4 ceremony - "a significant date," quips Polyakov, the one that feels like their real wedding day.  

Both couples reiterate that the move to the United States is temporary; they plan to return to Israel, their home. While progress in LGBT marriage rights in America is important, they hope such developments will improve the situation in Israel. Polyakov says they wanted to be interviewed in part so that more people understand that gay marriage “is okay - that it's not so extraordinary."

At least the new visa guidelines draw attention to the gay-marriage issue, adds Ben-Yosef. "If we weren't married, we couldn’t [move to America]," he says. "When people ask why gays need to get married - here’s a reason."  

David Bachar
Lior Shai