Despite the fact that Anton Tanumihardja can’t cook anything but rice and his 28-year-old partner, Brian Andersen, constantly teases him about being an old man at 45, the adorable South Philly couple have picked out rings for their wedding this weekend.
Since the couple can’t legally marry in Pennsylvania, they’re getting hitched in Washington, D.C., in a simple ceremony in front of a handful of friends in Lafayette Park, a lush slice of sky on the National Mall. In August, they plan to throw a reception party for friends and family back in Philly.
For Tanumihardja and Andersen, the thrill and challenge of staying together through thick and thin is intense: Tanumihardja, an Indonesian national, could be deported at any minute. He’s requested political asylum in the U.S. since overstaying his Visa in 2002 based on fear of persecution as a result of being gay, Catholic and ethnically Chinese, a triple minority in Indonesia.
With asylum requests repeatedly denied, it looked like Tanumihardja—trained as an accountant in Indonesia but working in a Center City deli the last seven years—was running out of options. But a recent change in the Obama administration’s approach to same-sex marriage instilled hope that Tanumihardja can avoid deportation through his marriage to Andersen.
Last July, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prevents their impending marriage from being recognized by the federal government, was challenged in Boston courts. Then, in February, the Department of Justice issued a statement formally questioning the constitutionality of DOMA. The way it’s looking now, Tanumihardja and Andersen just might have a chance for happily ever after, after all. “After we’re married, we’re going to file our immigration forms,” says Andersen. “We wanted to get married anyway, but this has given us the push to finalize it.”
Over a recent dinner of fried noodles and spring rolls at the Sky Café in South Philly (where they had their first date last year), the couple shared their vastly different experiences of growing up gay. Andersen says being gay in his family was never a big deal. “I told my mom and 10 minutes later she was like, ‘How can I help?’” But back in Indonesia, Tanumihardja kept his sexuality a secret. “I can’t come out to my family ... Indonesia is a conservative Muslim country that doesn’t accept gay people.”
Tanumihardja’s eyes swell with tears as he talks about how nervous he gets every time he dutifully treks to the immigration office on Callowhill Street to check the status of his case. “He’s always afraid to go,” Andersen says.
He’s always been afraid of being deported and of persecution back in Indonesia, but now the anxiety of suddenly having to leave the love of his life behind has made it worse. “Deportation is like a nightmare … I always worry, if they will give me enough time to make a phone call so I can call him,” says Tanumihardja. “They check you on each floor, the way they check you at the airport. And then sometimes you see people getting arrested.”
Tanumihardja still seems traumatized from a perilously close call with deportation this past February. He was en route to the airport on Valentine’s Day when Andersen, back home glued to his computer screen, received an email from their lawyer announcing that Tanumihardja was granted an 11th-hour temporary extension.
“I texted him, ‘we have good news,’” smiles Andersen, recalling the dramatic day.
“I was like, ‘I cannot even believe that I can stay longer,’” Tanumihardja adds.
If Tanumihardja is sent back to Indonesia based on denial of asylum, he would not by law be able to re-enter the United States for at least 10 years—even if DOMA was knocked down the next day and he was already married to Andersen.
“Clearly, asylum is an intensive process that uses a lot of resources of the courts and it’s emotionally draining,” says Lavi Soloway, Tanumihardja’s lawyer. “No one should be pursuing that except as a last resort.”
Soloway, an L.A.-based attorney who has spent the last 17 years specializing in LGBTQ immigration issues, launched “Stop the Deportations: The DOMA Project” last October to help binational gay couples and their families stay together.
“What we were able to do in [Tanumihardja’s] case was to put that off indefinitely,” says Soloway.
Tanumihardja and Andersen found Soloway last year after firing off emails and letters to every organization they could think of to ask for help. “One of them referred me to Lavi, and by the next day he was on the phone with us every night and emailing all day long … giving us support, and telling us what to do,” says Andersen.
Before finding Soloway, Tanumihardja’s legal prospects were grim. “My first lawyer who filed on asylum said he doesn’t want to take care of the second appeal because he said it was too expensive,” says Tanumihardja. So he hired another lawyer whose name he saw in the newspaper. “My second appeal was denied, so I asked her what should I do. She said, ‘Maybe you should just fly under the radar.’”
Within two weeks of Tanumihardja’s and Andersen’s dramatic Valentine’s Day doom, the Obama administration announced that it would no longer defend DOMA in court. “The president has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in a formal statement released on Feb. 23 by the Department of Justice. “The president has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional.”
The administration’s reversal is a big win for Soloway and his clients. “Not to be flippant about it, but essentially [the Obama administration’s] position is that we are correct,” says Soloway. “It’s unconstitutional to treat one married couple different from another couple.”