Celebrating Victories, Working Toward More

Satyam Barakoti & Tonja Holder • Atlanta, GA

This story was originally published in February 2014.

On the morning of June 26, 2013, Satyam and Tonja sat at their computers in Atlanta, Ga., Satyam at work and Tonja at home, anxiously updating SCOTUSBlog and wondering if this was the day their lives would change. 

It was the final day the United States Supreme Court was scheduled to issue rulings, and Satyam and Tonja were hoping for a positive decision striking down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, the law that for 16 years restricted legally married same-sex couples from receiving more than 1,000 federal protections of marriage. The women knew that if DOMA were struck down, then they could marry and Tonja could finally sponsor Satyam, who is originally from Nepal, for a green card that would allow her to permanently remain in the country.

At just after 10am, Satyam and Tonja refreshed their screens and saw the ruling: By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court justices had struck down the central part of DOMA.

The decision was life-changing for us. It meant that I could finally petition for Satyam's immigration as my spouse.

"The decision was life-changing for us," Tonja said. "It meant that we could get married - that our marriage would be federally recognized, and that I could finally petition for Satyam's immigration as my spouse." 

Just a few weeks later, in July 2013, Satyam and Tonja drove to the nation's capital and legally married. Their home state of Georgia would not respect the license - but the federal government would, and for the immediate purpose of staying together in the country, that was what mattered.

 After more than five years together - years where they fell in love and built a life together - they would finally be able to live without fear of a deadline when Satyam would be required to leave the country.

It had been a long journey to this point for Satyam, who moved to the United States to attend the University of Maine in 2001, eventually moving to Washington, D.C. and graduating from American University with a masters in International Development.

She moved to Atlanta in 2005, where she met Tonja, who worked at a South Asian community organization that serves survivors of domestic violence, and the two fell for each other quickly. When Satyam lost her job, Tonja started her own non-profit consulting company with Satyam, sponsoring her for a work visa to stay in the country.

The women worked hard to stay in the United States - but they were continually denied by immigration officials, who repeatedly pointed to DOMA as a reason for denying their commitment respect, giving her a February 2014 expiration date for her temporary visa. That's why the DOMA ruling was so momentous for the couple.

But now, Satyam and Tonja are again being told by their home state that their marriage is invalid.

"Standing with our friends on the day the Supreme Court struck down DOMA was bittersweet," Satyam said. "Our friends were elated for us, and we were thrilled, but as a community living in Georgia, our happiness was dampened. In our chosen home, we were still not recognized as equal citizens."

In our chosen home, we were still not recognized as equal citizens - It's amazing how much that matters.

Satyam and Tonja have lived together in Atlanta for nearly six years. It's where they met, built a friendship, and fell in love. It's where they promised their commitment to each other in May 2011, in front of all of their family members and friends. It's where they're raising their daughter, who they welcomed into the world on November 14, 2013. And it's where they hope, someday, to be legally and fully respected as a married couple.

"We do not have marriage equality in Georgia - but we do outside of Georgia," Tonja explained. "It's amazing how much that matters. When addressing any government institution, we are always asked, 'Are you married?' Our answer is always, 'Yes, but Georgia doesn't recognize it.'"

"The DOMA decision last year means that we can always answer yes to the question of whether we are married," Tonja continued. "And when Georgia is finally drug into the 21st century by extending marriage to all families, it means we won't have to follow up our answer with a 'but.'"