Two women, a Filipino and an American, will legally marry each other this month before an American judge in Illinois. Or, should circumstances allow, before a willing Catholic priest licensed to officiate civil weddings.
Erlinda Perlado, 55, and American Joan Mertens, 70, were betrothed to each other in 2010 in a union ceremony led by a woman priest of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. With Mertens’ fiancee visa petition for Perlado finally approved by the US embassy, marriage is in the offing, possibly this month.
It’s a union that might raise brows and hackles in the Philippines where, according to the Constitution, marriage can exist only between a man and a woman. Meanwhile, in the US, several states, among them California, Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New Mexico have accepted and legalized same-sex marriages.
Perlado’s and Mertens’ love story began in the US where both attended a 2005 summer renewal course at the Rockhaven Ecozoic Center in House Springs, Missouri.
Perlado was then working with the Integrated Pastoral Development Initiative (IPDI), a Philippine-based management and consultancy group when she decided to take a sabbatical leave that year. She wanted to close a period in her life that began after she had left the religious life.
At Rockhaven, Perlado and the other participants had sessions on self-integration, dream work, shibashi and the arts. They also learned about native American spirituality.
“I was there as a scholar,” the former religious said. “And so I volunteered to help with everyday chores.”
A graduate of the Mapua Institute of Technology who had passed the board for chemical engineers, Perlado joined the Carmelite Sisters of Charity, a Catholic apostolic congregation of women, when she was 22. She was a religious sister with vows for more than 20 years and was a vocation director at one time.
In 2002, Perlado asked for exclaustration, a temporary leave from her congregation. In 2005 she left the religious life for good. “My personal charism didn’t jive with the congregation’s,” she explained. “While in exclaustration I allowed myself to be who I was as a woman.” She needed time to find out who she really was, she said, adding that her search led her to Rockhaven.
Mertens, who was in the same Rockhaven group as Perlado, was herself a former member of a Catholic religious congregation founded in the US. She was a religious sister for 13 years and has been a special education teacher most of her life. When she met Perlado, her 15-year relationship with her partner had just ended.
“When Joan and I met for the first time, there was warmth and affinity between us right away,” Perlado recalled. After a month of being together in Rockhaven, she found the courage to reveal her feelings to Mertens. “I told her, ‘I like you.’ I am the gregarious type, you know.” Being a Filipino, she said expressing what she felt was just an opener to making friends.
Mertens had responded: “I like you, too, but I am not ready for a new relationship now.”
As far as Perlado was concerned, finding a partner was not even a goal. However, she disclosed that two years earlier, she had a special female friend, a Swiss. Their relationship, she said, was an eye-opening experience. Looking back, she said she had realized that even when she was a religious sister, there were women who were attracted to her.
After that Rockhaven summer course, Perlado said she and Mertens “parted as friends.” While Mertens got busy selling her house and moving to a smaller one, she stayed at Rockhaven to help out.
Since Mertens’ new place was near Rockhaven, the two would regularly meet to eat out or watch a movie. Occasionally, Perlado would spend weekends with Mertens.
One time, on the day that Perlado was leaving for New York and New Jersey to visit her aunts, she received an early morning phone call from Mertens asking her to call as soon as she arrived in New York. That call led to regular phone calls between them every evening, daily conversations that developed their relationship further and bridged the distance somewhat.
“There was only ‘MU’ (mutual understanding) between us at that time. Joan wanted to continue the relationship,” Perlado recalled.
When she came back to Rockhaven to continue her sabbatical in early September, Perlado said she and Mertens would sometimes meet, dine out, watch a movie or go to St. Louis. Sometimes she would spend weekends with Mertens, or visit the latter’s mom.
In October 2005, the two women went to the Lake of the Ozarks and decided to make their relationship exclusive. On Nov. 9, 2005, they confirmed their relationship in a blessing ceremony led by Sr. Tobias Hagan CSI, founder of Rockhaven. “That marked our engagement as a couple,” Perlado said.
Soon after, she left for the Philippines to continue her work with IPDI. Mertens followed during her spring break in March 2006. Her trip to the Philippines was her first outside the US. Mertens stayed for two weeks and visited several places, among them, Baguio City and Quezon. She also met Perlado’s family and friends. She would visit the Philippines twice more, in 2006, and has even learned to go to some places by herself.
That year, Perlado returned to St. Louis, Missouri to spend Christmas with Mertens’ family, thus further deepening their relationship. In 2007, she got a partial scholarship from The United Church of Christ-Hawaii Conference for a Master’s in Pastoral Studies at the Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, where she pursued the course from 2008 to 2011.
“It was a good time for Joan and myself because we were able to live together as a couple and know each other better,” Perlado recalled. “In 2010 we decided it was time to go through a union ceremony. Unfortunately my mom got sick and eventually died in July that year. So we moved the ceremony from July to August.
“The union ceremony was a happy one. We honored the memory of our mothers, Evelyn and Ester. The ceremony was held in a log house that Joan had built and which I helped finish. It is in a wooded subdivision in House Springs. I call it our winter Swiss Alps cabin. The house is made of white pine logs. I helped Joan put up some of the walls and install bamboo flooring. I also helped in the interior decoration.
“Later we had ourselves registered as domestic partners in Columbia in Missouri. We are legally recognized as ‘a couple in a domestic partnership’ so we are able to share our insurance,” she said.
While doing a clinical pastoral education (CPE) course and training as a chaplain at Barnes Jewish Hospital-Washington University, Perlado also registered Mertens in her insurance. Her CPE course, Perlado said, helped her in coming out.
After she graduated from Eden in 2011, Perlado applied for work to be with Mertens. “Unfortunately, it was a bad time because the US economy was down,” she said. “I tried to get employment at a local Franciscan retreat, and the Franciscans tried to get a work permit for me at the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) but the application was denied.”
Her student visa had expired so in December of 2011, Perlado had to go back to the Philippines. She did not want to stay on without a proper visa while waiting for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be struck down.
DOMA was the law banning the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage already legalized in several US states. In 2013, the US Supreme Court ruled the ban unconstitutional.
In a majority opinion, US Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
“While separated,” Perlado recalled, “Joan and I were praying and hoping that the DOMA would be no more. Friends and family support helped us a lot.”
During that waiting time, she would fly to the US every so often to be with Mertens. “I was there in 2013 but we still could not get married until the DOMA was struck down. Our lawyer advised us not to, because then I won’t be able to go in and out (of the US). In the meantime, we supported the human rights campaign against the DOMA. What a joy it was for us when it was finally struck down in 2013. It was a kind of miracle, a real blessing from God, indeed.”
The elated couple thought it would be smooth sailing from then on. Mertens petitioned Perlado as a fiancée, much like what engaged heterosexual couples do. But Perlado had to go through medical tests and a waiting period of about six months for her health clearance. After the final hurdle—Perlado’s interview at the US embassy—her fiancee visa was approved. This means a civil wedding for the couple this month.
“It is required and expected that we get married legally within three months after I get to the US,” Perlado explained. “We will likely get married before a judge in Chicago where same-sex marriage is allowed.
“We already had sacramental rites before Rev. Jessica Rowley, assistant pastor of the Saints Clare and Francis Parish of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion which is affiliated with the old Catholic Church of the Netherlands,” she added.
Perlado and Mertens have been through several union ceremonies and spiritual blessings, but it is the legal wedding that will confirm that they are indeed a married couple before the law.
While Perlado still considers herself a member of the Catholic Church and is happy that her decision has been accepted by individuals within the church, she knows that the institutional church cannot grant her and Mertens marital status.
“My family accepts my decision,” she said, adding that “Joan’s brother has a same-sex partner. I have a first cousin in the US who is into a male-male relationship and who has children who are twins.”
But she and Mertens have not considered raising children since it is late for them to do so.
Last March, Perlado graduated with a second master’s degree—in Religious Studies, major in Women and Religion—from the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies, a Catholic institution for religious in Quezon City. She sometimes facilitates spiritual retreats for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. She also serves as a consultant in a church-related women’s organization.
“My mother knew I have kept my faith,” Perlado said. “She saw me holding the rosary and we prayed together before she died. I have never felt that I am condemned. My relationship with God has not changed. My relationship with Joan is deep. We share a lot of things together especially in faith and spirituality. We are good for each other.”
The friends of both Perlado and Mertens, church people among them, have only good wishes for the couple. Quipped Perlado: “It is hard to wait to be with my honey Joanie. We miss being together a lot. May God’s blessings be with us.” •
To Have and To Hold, Regardless of Gender
Same sex marriages are probably the latest, most revolutionary social change in recent years.
Already, 17 states in the United States have legalized same-sex marriages as of February 2014.
6 by court decision
California* (June 28, 2013), Connecticut (Nov. 12, 2008), Iowa (Apr. 24, 2009), Massachusetts (May 17, 2004), New Jersey (Oct. 21, 2013), New Mexico (Dec. 19, 2013)
9 by state legislature
Delaware (July 1, 2013), Hawaii (Dec. 2, 2013), Illinois (law will take effect June 1, 2014), Minnesota (Aug. 1, 2013), New Hampshire (Jan. 1, 2010), New York (July 24, 2011), Rhode Island (Aug. 1, 2013), Washington, DC (2010) and Vermont (Sep. 1, 2009)
3 by popular vote
Maine (Dec. 29, 2012), Maryland (Jan. 1, 2013), Washington (Dec. 9, 2012)
Still, there are 33 states that currently ban same-sex marriages.
Indiana (1997), Pennsylvania (1996), West Virginia (2000), Wyoming (2003)
All over the world, 18 countries aside from the US, have legalized same-sex marriages:
Argentina (2010), Belgium (2003), Brazil (2013), Canada (2005), Denmark (2012), England/Wales (2013), France (2013), Iceland (2010), The Netherlands (2000), New Zealand (2013), Norway (2009), Portugal (2010), Scotland (2014), South Africa (2006), (Spain (2005), Sweden (2009), Uruguay (2013); Mexico (2009, only in some jurisdictions)