BY AJ TRAGER
CHELSEA – In 1992, current University of Michigan professor Tom Toon was doing research at the British Library in London. On a spring day in March, Toon ran into native Englishman Anthony Shakeshaft and the two of them hit it off immediately. For the next 22 years the pair would spend their lives crossing the pond multiple times a year to be with one another, sharing their lives in England and in the United States.
During the first year of their relationship, Shakeshaft came to the U.S. for Christmas, and Toon spent time in England during the breaks at the university. Shakeshaft applied for the visa waiver program which allowed him to stay in the country for up to 90 days. For the next several years, the couple raised a daughter in the United Kingdom, each spending every few months across the Atlantic.
In 1994 they applied for a domestic partnership in a local bank which was subsequently overturned, and then in 2011 they applied for a domestic partnership in the U.K.
The coupled planned to retire in England. But until that time came, Toon applied for a spousal visa in the U.K. and Shakeshaft remained on the visa waiver program in the U.S. Fortunately, Toon never had any trouble getting through immigration to visit his partner.
It wasn’t until marriage became possible here in Michigan that Shakeshaft decided he wasn’t going to go back during his latest approval under the visa waiver program.
“I always say we’ve been married five times,” Shakeshaft laughed.
Shakeshaft was staying in Michigan when Judge Friedman issued his ruling in March of last year. Once they heard the news, the couple rushed to the Washtenaw courthouse to get married. Then, Snyder repealed the decision and they were left unsure of the status of their marriage. They drove to Chicago, signed their second marriage document in a two day period and returned home, officially married in the U.S. They then set up an immigration hearing for early August.
“We expected it to be like the movies and for them (immigration services) to be confrontational, but as a matter of fact, at that point, the immigration services were incredibly welcoming. At every stage before that they were resistant, and you had to justify to them. But at that stage they just chatted with us,” Toon said.
“I asked if we were the first gays that they’ve done that were married in Michigan. And they said we were the first married couple to use it as evidence for immigration purposes,” Shakeshaft said.
A week later, on the anniversary of their British wedding, his green card came. Shakeshaft could hardly believe it.
“I was taking this a bit seriously, because for me it was – I don’t want to be too dramatic – but it was like my Ellis Island. I couldn’t believe our luck to be able to go through this,” Shakeshaft said.
Shakeshaft now has to remain in the states for more than six months during the year. After two years and ten months, he can apply for naturalization. The permanent resident alien status is conditional and needs to be renewed within three years. After that, the renewal is every five or ten years.
“In the U.K. we have more rights without a will than we do, clearly, in the state of Michigan. But even if the state recognized our marriage, British law gives married couples more and clearer rights than America does,” Toon said.
The University of Michigan has always recognized them as a couple and provided them with full benefits, even having to go through many machinations in order to use language that didn’t violate the state’s earlier ban against providing for those partner benefits.
“You know what’s really bizarre?” Shakeshaft asked. “When you have no human rights, we just got on with it. But not in a passive way. I kept thinking, ‘Where would our life be if it were an equal playing field, or an equal situation?’ We would’ve made different choices. It makes me really cross. We’re incredibly lucky to be in Washtenaw county.”
“If it makes a huge amount of difference to religious conservatives that somehow their marriage would be diminished if we (LGBT people) were allowed to marry, I’ll take that as long as I have civil rights. As long as there are mechanisms, even though we have to go through lots and lots of legal hoops and hurdles that heterosexuals don’t have to do. For me, calling it marriage was unimportant. Or at least, I thought it was. But it turns out, for me, that it’s not unimportant,” Toon admitted.
For the first time in over 20 years, the couple now permanently resides together in their home, coincidentally 20 minutes away from Manchester, Michigan; their place in the U.K. was 20 minutes from Manchester, England.
“We’ve seen flowers blooming that we had planted 20 odd years ago in this garden; we had never seen them. Because from ’95, I’d never been here during the spring and then he’d always be in England. This house was like a halfway house,” Shakeshaft said. “It is just incredible. So, thank the DeBoers. In fact, it goes back to the drag queens at Stonewall or Harvey Milk. It is just really, really incredible.”