This gay married couple is more than ready to simply start living.
That thought echoed through my head after 90 minutes in a coffee shop on the south side of Indianapolis with Austin Armacost and Jake Lees. It is that simple desire to live that supports their statement: Should the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals fail to re-affirm the order from the U.S. District Court that Indiana’s ban on same sex marriage is unconstitutional, they will move out of the state.
The statement isn’t meant to be a threat or ultimatum or a display of the power of celebrity status. It does reflect the weight of the struggle that married same sex couples face in their quest to simply be treated like other married couples of the opposite sex; that there comes a time when choices in life have to be made for the sake of one’s self and one’s partner.
And after hearing about the struggles they faced over five-plus years just to be together on the same continent, I can’t say that I blame them.
Austin is the native Hoosier in the relationship. Born in Muncie and raised in Franklin, Austin describes his early life as typical of someone growing up in small town Indiana. “I knew very young I was gay,” said Austin. “But I didn’t really face any type of negativity or discrimination growing up.”
The aspiring actor/model said his older brother, Tyler, was supportive and had his back. He believed he gained more friends once people knew he was gay. “The girls always were like ‘we can go shopping!’ but honestly, I hate shopping. I’d rather drink a beer, go hunting, watch sports, anything else,” Austin laughed.
In high school, Austin was an All-American athlete in track and field. He transferred to Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis to continue his training in pole-vaulting until a back injury thwarted his career and any Olympic aspirations.
That’s not to say Austin didn’t face any struggles accepting his sexuality. His biggest battle was on the religious front. “I would spend a couple hundred dollars on gay porn and then burn it,” Austin said, alluding to the fear and confusion that came from his religious upbringing in accepting his homosexuality. Once he reached the age of 18 and had the opportunity to travel outside of Indiana, Austin was able to embrace himself fully.
How did you and Jake meet?
A question, I’m sure, Austin has been asked a hundred times, and yet, the smile on his face said it never got old. “At a bar. I heard his accent and I just melted,” said Austin.
Jake Lees, a British national, was in Indianapolis on an international internship for his degree in Hospitality Management when he met Austin in the fall of 2008. However, when that internship was over and Jake’s student VISA was no longer valid, Austin had some decisions to make.
“Jake had two years of school left, and since he couldn’t stay here, he asked me to go to England with him.” Austin said he was reluctant leave everything he had known, but was excited about where that new adventure could take him. “The day after I got my passport, I packed up my stuff and left.”
Austin and Jake continued their very long distance relationship after Austin was cast in LOGO-TV’s The A-List: New York, a reality show about six gay men living in New York. The show was in the middle of taping when Austin took four days off to fly to England and get legally married.
“England is a very progressive country in that, when we got married, I had access to all of the rights of a spouse, including resident status,” said Austin. However, the same could not be said of Jake. He was still considered a “legal stranger” in the eyes of U.S. Immigration.
In 2010, that meant Austin couldn’t sponsor Jake for a green card because he wasn’t recognized as his legal spouse. Since Jake was only allowed to travel to America during a 90-day VISA free period or on a 6-month visitor pass (which is only issued once per calendar year), a long distance marriage became their way of life.
The stress of being apart took its toll, with Austin experiencing short episodes of depression and periodic binge drinking. But it also led Austin to use his newfound celebrity status to be proactive. “Our personal story became a strong storyline for the show of what gay bi-national couples have to deal with,” said Austin.
After The A-List: New York finished taping, Austin began active involvement in the movement to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and worked with groups like the DOMA Project and Immigration Equality to bring awareness to the issue and educate the masses.
Austin’s hard work and advocacy paid off in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA and opened the doors for gay immigrants like Jake to join their spouses in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
As I listened to their practically made-for-TV story (no wonder The A-List: New York capitalized on their storyline), I could barely sit still, waiting to ask my next obvious question.
If England is so progressive and open to same sex marriages, why live in America, let alone Indiana?
Austin and Jake smiled and nodded, not at all surprised by my inquiry.
“England is not very big, really no bigger than the state of Georgia here in the United States, so there isn’t a lot of opportunity there,” said Austin.
“The quality of life in England is lower than in the U.S.,” added Jake. “The taxes are high, poor education, employment is difficult. It’s all lower and middle class with no real opportunities.”
And for Austin, Indiana is and will always be home.
“I can only stand New York for about 72 hours,” said Austin. “People act like they don’t want to be bothered with you and they mean it. Every time you leave your apartment, you are busy and it’s going to cost you at least $50 to get where you are going and do what you want to do. Even Central Park is busy.”
“We really are just country folk,” said Jake, in a northern English accent with hints of a Scottish brogue.
Austin was right. The accent was pretty adorable.
The repeal of DOMA in 2013 had a big impact on Austin and Jake. The young couple had just reached the point of exhausting all options for the year to be together leading Jake to take a job on an American cruise line. “Jake had just signed a 6-month contract the day DOMA was repealed,” said Austin.
Once they were able to get to the U.S. Embassy in London following the DOMA decision, the effect was immediately apparent. “Usually when we went to the U.S. Embassy in London we were the only gay couple there,” said Austin. “After DOMA there were tons. I can’t put into words what it meant to be recognized, finally.”
But back home again in Indiana, those rights were essentially gone.
Austin has continued his activist work in his home state. He worked with Freedom Indiana in the last legislative session to push HJR3 off the ballot. At one point, he and Jake considered taking the state to court to challenge the constitutionality of Indiana’s ban on same sex marriage, but were advised to wait. National advocates leaned toward a strategy that started with more liberal states to build momentum before hitting the more conservative states like Indiana and Texas. Austin says he was surprised when the cases here in Indiana were filed but applauds and fully supports their efforts.
Because if, God forbid, it doesn’t happen in Indiana, “We are gone,” said Austin. It has nothing to do with legal acceptance, because in Austin’s eyes, things are fine socially and have been for some time. It boils down to not wanting to support a government structure that refuses to support him.
“I don’t want to pay taxes in any state that doesn’t recognize my marriage.”