Susan Betts moved to the United States to follow her career dreams. A combination of the Defense of Marriage Act and immigration-related laws meant that she and her partner, who came with her, might not be able to stay unless something changed.
By Candace Whitney-Morris
In 2008, Susan Betts and her partner, Silvia Colombaretti, made the move to New York City from São Paulo, Brazil, where they met and fell in love, and pursued their dream to live abroad. Betts was granted a work visa for a new job, and Colombaretti came to the United States on a student visa. Colombaretti didn’t know English at the time and decided that she would learn the language.
After two years, Betts was offered a senior director position on the Microsoft Brand team. Saying yes to the job was significantly easier than the immigration challenge that awaited them—Colombaretti’s student visa was due to expire.
“We were debating staying in New York—jumping at the opportunity for me to work at Microsoft—or going back to Brazil,” Betts recalled. “But always, there was this question around immigration.”
This was in 2011, and gay marriage wouldn’t be recognized by the US Supreme Court until 2013, which meant that Colombaretti wasn’t eligible to apply for a green card as Betts’s spouse. Colombaretti had neither a green card nor a spouse visa, and the couple wondered if they might be headed back to Brazil much sooner than they wanted.
“We loved it here; it was where we chose to be,” said Betts.
While Betts was still in the recruitment phase with Microsoft and fielding these complex questions, Microsoft’s legal team stepped in to help.
“They were incredibly diligent and supportive every step of the way, before I came to Microsoft and during the subsequent months after I had joined,” Betts said. “There are hundreds of people at Microsoft who are on visas, and Microsoft does a lot of work to support their immigration. We probably have the best legal immigration team that you could ever dream for, because we have so many people from overseas here,” Betts said.
Microsoft’s legal counsel suggested that the couple postpone the next step—applying for Betts’s green card—until Colombaretti could be added to the application as her recognized legal spouse. Many eyes were on the landmark Edie Windsor court case, which the legal team knew could flip everything on its head by repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, the US federal law that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.
In 2012, same-sex marriage became legal in Washington State, but still the couple waited to get married.
“Marriage equality on a federal level is what mattered to us, because immigration is a federal issue,” said Betts.
They waited, but they did not despair. Betts calls herself a glass-half-full kind of person, and while things were up in the air, Betts said that she knew they could always move home to Brazil and be close to their supportive families.
“We were apprehensive, but we had options,” she said. “A lot of people aren’t that flexible.”
She also felt fortunate that she was born into an accepting family and recognized that many people don’t have that experience.
“My mother is incredibly supportive of me and Silvia.”
The ability to feel confident at home with her family meant Betts didn’t have to worry about her sexuality and the potential impact it could have on her life.
“At home, at work, with my friends, and in my social life, it’s never really been a taboo, or hidden,” she said. “This gave me peace of mind since the very beginning of my adult life. I wish everyone could have the kind of emotional support I did.”
In anticipation of the Windsor case, the couple married in April 2013, so that when the decision came down, they could proceed with the final stage of their green card application and list Colombaretti as Betts’s legally recognized spouse.
Betts and Colombaretti originally thought they would have a simple courthouse wedding, but they reconsidered, wanting to make memories with their families in Brazil. Using the power of video conferencing, they logged into Skype at 6:00 AM in Washington State and watched while Betts’s mother (equipped with their power of attorneys), friends, and a Brazilian notary made it official in their home country.
“Then I came to work,” Betts said. “And after work, we went over to the Bellevue Courthouse and got married here, too,” Betts proclaimed, like the end of a fairy tale.
Windsor, one of Betts’s heroes, won her case in the US Supreme Court, granting same-sex couples the same benefits that are given to married heterosexuals.
“When that happened, it unlocked marriage equality at a federal level,” Betts said, which meant it also unlocked the immigration debate at a federal level. The following year, the couple were granted their green cards.
“We were guided every step of the way by Microsoft’s legal team, which was incredible. You know, I couldn’t ask for more,” Betts said. “I have felt and been supported for who I am my entire life—by my family and now by Microsoft as my employer,” she said. “When that happens, you feel truly included.”
Stories power change
As a firm believer in the power of stories, Betts shares hers as much as she can with the hope of providing a better platform for others and the life they choose to live.
“Once stories become a part of social fabric, once they aren’t hidden in the closet, people will start to be more accepting. And the norms, the behaviors, the values will start to change because people will start to see things differently,” she said.
“I think that when things are in the closet and hidden, you create your own story about what they are. When things are out of the closet, you realize that we are all diverse in some way,” she continued.
“My uniqueness may be different from your uniqueness, but we’re not different at a very human level. My love for my wife, and her love for me, is no different than your love for your spouse.”
Betts said it’s a bit ironic, all the talk about immigration and the legal system and the Supreme Court and the Microsoft legal team. “Because to me, at the end of the day it’s all just about Silvia and I loving each other.”