After falling in love with bicycling in her 30s, Jill DiMauro bought the Proteus Bicycle Shop on U.S. Route 1 in College Park in 2002 and has since built a community centered on the shop.
“It’s not just about bikes,” said DiMauro, 53, who lives in Baltimore. “There’s this community here, in this bubble we’ve built. I don’t know how I’m going to function in the real world without it.”
DiMauro sold the business in May and is leaving the comfort of her five employees and dozens of loyal customers — some, she said, who travel from as far as Philadelphia and New Jersey to shop, and many who come to the shop’s Thursday night potlucks and weekend rides — in order to keep her family together, she said.
DiMauro and her same-sex partner, who is not a citizen of the U.S. — DiMauro asked that her partner’s name and citizenship not be identified for legal reasons — have run out of options for legally staying together in the country.
“I couldn’t bear for people to think I would leave my community by choice,” she said. “But a functional, loving family is being torn apart.”
For DiMauro’s partner, leaving the community they have built is like leaving her family behind, she said.
“We know their bikes. We know their personal lives. We know what they like and don’t like,” she said. “It’s like cutting out a big chunk of our family.”
After seven years together and getting married in Canada in 2007, DiMauro’s partner has exhausted every legal avenue, such as work and student visas, for staying in the country, DiMauro said.
“[My partner] has always been here legally,” DiMauro said. “I refuse to break the law.”
Citizens and legal permanent residents can sponsor their spouses to get legal resident status, said Brian Mouton, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. But because the federal government defines marriage as between one man and one woman, immigration status cannot be transferred to spouses in same-sex marriages, he said.
“Even those binational couples who are lawfully married — either in one of the seven U.S. jurisdictions that has marriage equality or abroad — are unable to utilize the family based immigration system to stay in the country,” Moulton said.
According to a November 2011 study from the Williams Institute — a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law focused on sexual orientation and gender identity law — there are more than 28,500 binational same-sex couples in the U.S., and about 11,500 non-citizen same-sex couples.
“It’s a problem that I think a lot of people aren’t aware of,” said Greenbelt resident Laurie Lemieux, a regular customer at Proteus for more than six years who is now one of the store’s new owners. “I wish this was not the reason they were leaving.”
DiMauro said she has full confidence that new owners Lemieux, a registered nurse, and Ben Bassett, an employee for more than five years, will continue to run the shop in a way that engages the community.
“Jill has built a really ethical model for doing business, and we’re going to keep it going the way it has been,” Lemieux said.
More than anything she has done, DiMauro said, it’s the customers who have kept the business going.
“I’ve never made a loss. I’ve never had to fire someone. I’ve never cut hours. I’ve never cut pay,” DiMauro said. “You can be honest and have integrity and do the right thing and still run a business. You just have to have patience and have faith in people.”
“It’s not just about [Jill’s] expertise,” said College Park Councilman Patrick Wojahn (Dist. 1), an occasional customer at the store. “She’s a very community-oriented business owner. It’s a real loss.”
DiMauro’s partner will live in Canada for the next year, until she is eligible to apply for another work visa. DiMauro, a former city planner, will split her time between her native upstate New York and Canada. Her children, ages 19 and 22, from a previous marriage, will stay at the family’s home in Baltimore, where they are both going to school.
“We’re a good family. We’re involved in the community. We all love each other and we contribute,” DiMauro said, adding that immigration laws don’t take these things into account when it comes to same-sex couples. “So I feel like, why don’t they like me?”