WASHINGTON -- In one of the first cases of its kind, a Belarusian man has married his American same-sex partner in the United States -- and can stay.
Vyachaslau Bortnik, 39, a rights activist from the city of Homel, and Shawn Gaylord, 44, a U.S. lawyer and adviser for a gay-rights organization, married in a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on July 11.
The couple wed after maintaining a long-distance relationship for nearly 10 years -- and just weeks after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights paved the way for Bortnik to remain in the United States.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Bortnik recalls meeting his partner for the first time, as well as fears that the first time would be the last.
"We met in 2003 during an Amnesty International rights conference [in Mexico]," Bortnik says. "At that time I founded an Amnesty International office in Belarus and Shawn was with its Washington office. So it happened that we met each other at that conference. By the time it was wrapping up, he told me that there was only one chance in a million that we would ever meet again, given the distance between the [United] States and Belarus."
Bortnik and Gaylord made sure they did meet again, although not without considerable difficulty.
For Belarusians, getting visas to the United States is a headache at best. U.S. flights to Belarus are far from cheap. The pair met several times in third countries, such as the Czech Republic and Poland, and maintained daily e-mail contact.
Even after Washington's embassy in Minsk became familiar with Bortnik's human rights advocacy and facilitated his visas for U.S. travel, the couple knew that a more permanent solution had to be found. They were considering moving to Canada, where gay marriage is legal.
But a historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling in late June changed their lives forever -- as well as the lives of thousands of other binational same-sex couples.
By the narrowest of margins, the top U.S. court struck down a central provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that restricted the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman.
The decision meant that legally married gay couples became entitled to claim the same federal benefits as are generally available to opposite-sex married couples in the United States. It also meant that foreigners who marry U.S. citizens in same-sex marriages could now apply for permanent residence and eventual citizenship.
Same-sex marriage has been adopted by 12 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., where Gaylord lives.
He remembers the anxiety and joy surrounding the court's decision.
"We were ecstatic, of course," Gaylord says. "This is something we had been anticipating and hoping for for quite a while. We knew what it meant when the ruling came through: We knew that we would then be able to keep him here permanently and to be together without all of the hassle that's normally involved in a binational relationship."
Bortnik says he knows of several cases of Belarusians marrying same-sex partners from EU countries where gay marriage is legal, such as Sweden. But the opportunity to do so in the United States is one he never thought possible until recently.
Home Is Where The Hate Is
Now on track to become a U.S. citizen in five years, he says the difference between Washington and Homel is stark. In the U.S. capital, Bortnik says, "nobody cares about your sexual orientation."
"The situation is completely different in Belarus," Bortnik says. "No matter if it's a remote area or the capital or a regional center -- opinion polls unfortunately show that homophobia is prevalent in Belarus. I certainly do not believe that Belarus would enable such things as same-sex marriage anytime soon."
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Belarus in 1994. Nevertheless, homophobia remains rampant in the country. Activists and LGBT citizens routinely face stigmatization and discrimination. The situation is similar throughout most of the former Soviet Union.
In March, in response to criticism by Germany's openly gay foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, Belarus's authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said, "Better to be a dictator than be gay."
Bortnik says Lukashenka is trying to keep Belarusian society "in the permafrost." Still, he says he will continue his advocacy work for the unregistered Gay Belarus rights organization and will return to the country to visit his family. Those family members he has told about his marriage are accepting, he says.
Bortnik says of concerns about his planned trip home later this year that he's "not expecting violence or attacks, but information about our marriage was in the mainstream media with pictures."
"Maybe people will recognize me, but I'm ready for any reaction," he adds. "I have a history of human-rights activism and in the past I also had problems with the police -- I was detained a couple of times. So, actually, I am prepared for any kind of treatment. I'm not scared."
Bortnik and Gaylord also plan to travel to Homel next spring to celebrate their wedding.
Jan Maksymiuk of RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report from Prague