On Their 5th Anniversary as a Couple, Judy & Karin File for a Green Card Based on Their Marriage and Challenge DOMA
Our Life Is Not Our Own – A Binational Lesbian Couple in an American Marriage
Once upon a time, a few years ago, I met the woman of my dreams. You might think that is a lot to say – and it is – but I learned then that at an advanced age, 57, and online, a lesbian dating site, I could find the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Luckily, it turned out after a bit of time getting to know each other that she felt the same way too. What a relief for me that was since I had given up on dating and thought I would spend the rest of my life with my cats.
It isn’t easy to get together with someone when you are both Golden Girls. Karin was 65 at the time. At this point in our lives, we came to the relationship with significant history: lives well lived, but still, on meandering and not by any means identical paths. We had lots of things we had done our own certain ways for decades, and with previous partners. With me, it was always women. But my wife had been married or partnered with men – and had children too, which I did not. No one would be too surprised to think our pasts and habits didn’t all match. The surprise really was that we could make a go of it, I guess.
I believed our future could take off if we were willing to compromise and stretch and share. I am stubborn and determined and I found out that Karin is too. And you could say that was something we had in common right from the start! In spite of that, we found that we enjoyed being together and we learned how to round the edges off our hard parts. We found that we really wanted to be together and we would work at it. That was of major importance, since life really threw us a big curve ball because of our binational situation.
I “dated” Karin mostly virtually at first. She had contacted me unknowingly on a lesbian dating site. When she clicked on my profile, she never realized I would know that she had. After a couple of days with no message, I wrote her and asked what she found interesting about me. She was surprised to hear from me and at first decided not to answer. But she later thought that would be rude, so she sent me a brief message.
She shared that I had written the profile she would have written – and I believed her. She said she liked my pictures, my smile. I was glad I had posted photographs. She was intrigued by what I shared I have done in life and the things that I still wanted to do. So one message lead to another, then another, then after a couple of weeks we talked on the phone. I guess we didn’t move fast, but it seemed fast at the time.
Karin invited me to a PFLAG dance as her date. She was visiting in Oregon and I live in California. I told her I didn’t dance. She said that was ok, she didn’t either. Her friends were concerned about her and made plans to protect her if I was a nut case. At home, my friends thought I was nuts for agreeing to fly to another state and go to a dance with someone I had met online. I probably would have told a friend the same thing, but something kept drawing me to Karin and vice versa.
So I went to the dance and we had a wonderful three-day weekend visit. We shuffled around the dance floor a bit, had fun visiting and went on the swings in the nearby park. I went home and the emails and phone calls continued. The message was clear – we missed each other. So Karin came to visit in California. She was glad to see me, but she didn’t feel comfortable in my house. She didn’t like the colors or the furniture. She met my friends and was okay, but on edge. It was a big deal and we had to be careful.
She went back to Oregon and we weren’t sure what would happen. Then the tide turned after she made arrangements to rent a house with a friend. She called me on the phone, distraught. She wanted to know why I had not invited her to stay with me in California. I was stunned, since she said she wanted to stay in Oregon. So, during winter snow with the main highway closed, she drove herself to me and we agreed to be together for a month to see how it went – regardless. That was our first commitment.
After the month, we agreed to be together three months. That went by. Then she had to leave. It was a blow to the heart. Because of her visa, she could only be in the United States to visit, and only if she is fortunate to be permitted a six month visit upon entry.
So she left. I waited. She came back and we agreed that we would continue to see if we could make it in relationship, but we still took it in stages. We decided to go on a trip, and went on a Hawaii cruise with Olivia, the lesbian travel group. On the trip, on the ship, in the dark, on the deck, with a volcano erupting in the background, we pledged commitment for a year – regardless. It was a huge step for both of us. We had inexpensive rings Karin had bought. We took them off and twisted them together and tossed them overboard. We took our orchid leis off and tossed them overboard, hugging and crying and agreeing that we would be a couple for a year.
At the time, we still didn’t really know what role the U.S. government was going to play in our relationship, but we moved forward together. We agreed on our mantra, Better Together, and spent the rest of the cruise in a happy glow.
After we got back to California, we felt that we had already had our honeymoon. When the local LGBT center had a domestic partnership event on Valentine’s Day, we joined in and celebrated a public commitment to each other in front of family and friends. We felt married, though we couldn’t be married in California at the time. And, we had been cautioned by those in the know that getting married would make it harder for Karin to visit me. The border folks would think she was going to overstay her visit. We really started feeling the harsh reality of a same-sex binational couple’s life. That reality never went away and as the months and years went by it only got harder for Karin to leave and for me to stay behind and work.
If you’re (still) wondering why we face this kind of a life, it’s because we are both women, lesbians, and not both U.S. citizens. Born in Germany in 1940, Karin is a UK national and has been for decades. She has also lived in Spain and France – and for a few years in Florida. I never imagined when I fell in love with her and committed to a life together that I would not be able to welcome her to my country and live happily ever after, as the fairy tale goes. I am an American citizen, born in 1948, and have lived in California for all but the first few weeks of my life.
To the government, we are legal strangers. In reality, we are domestic partners in California as of February 14, 2007 and legally married in Vermont, as of April 6, 2011. We decided to marry when things looked promising for same-sex binational couples based on news reports in March 2011 that seemed to hold out hope for access to the “green card” process; but things changed within two days. The federal government clarified that it would be enforcing DOMA, despite the President’s welcome announcement that DOMA was unconstitutional and would no longer be defended by the administration in federal court challenges. We went forward with our plans anyway. By the time we got to Vermont and tied the knot, we had lost the hope of any immediate federal recognition of our marriage. And the fight continues.
Seven years after meeting online, and five years after registering our domestic partnership on Valentine’s Day, our lives and fate are still determined by discriminatory U.S. immigration and one very strange federal “marriage non-recognition” law called the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which defines “marriage” for all federal purposes as only marriages between one man and one woman. Although signed in 1996 before any lesbian or gay couples were allowed to marry, it strikes me as silly. How can you not “recognize” the loving, committed relationships of two married adults just because they happen to be gay or lesbian couples?
I love Karin. Karin loves me. But we can’t be together all the time. My own government refuses to give me the same right as all other Americans have, to sponsor my wife for a “green card.” The Immigration and Nationalization Act lets an American citizen sponsor a spouse, parent or child for immigration. But not me. DOMA negates our status as spouses. Until DOMA is gone or an expansion of family-based immigration is passed into law that provides for partners of lesbian and gay Americans to be treated like spouses, we are trapped. I have worked hard to raise awareness of DOMA’s impact on the lives of same-sex binational couples. I have encouraged everyone I know to help us support the pending legislation that would go a long way to help fix this problem (e.g. Uniting American Families Act, Reuniting Families Act or Respect for Marriage Act). But until Congress acts to repeal DOMA or pass LGBT-inclusive immigration reform, or the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA, we remain legal strangers to each other. How would that make you feel?
We are legally married, but the country will not recognize that. Not fair. Not right. I don’t want the U.S. government in charge of my life, but it’s been that way since we committed to being together in America.
I have had to be separated from Karin for months at a time while I worked and she became a “love exile” time and time again. We hated that, so I finally took early retirement. Now we have less money to live on and our expenses are higher. When she has to leave the country, now I am free to go with her. People think it’s great that we live in Europe for months at a time and see places they dream about, but that is not a way to live on an ongoing basis.
And being torn apart from family when there is serious illness has already been one of our big challenges. We were “love exiles” in Europe for months in 2009/2010 and then came back to California to face a serious family crisis. Karin’s visa expired in October 2010, and she was forced to leave once again. I stayed behind to help as I could with my dying brother-in-law and to help my sister. Karin was a “love exile” again while we all grieved a huge loss. DOMA tore our family apart when we needed to be together most. For all these reasons, Karin and I decided that we will not allow ourselves to be torn apart. I filed a green card petition for Karin and I will challenge my government to treat me equally.
Though individual stories differ, an estimated 36,000 families are dealing with this discrimination. I learned that after it became my issue. I learned more about how it plays out when I decided to write a book to educate and advocate and raise money for the groups who work on our issue. Since I was retired, I had time. I sure had the need and I had more than enough interest. By finding other couples and families with children to interview for Torn Apart: United by Love, Divided by Law, I quickly learned how desperate others have it and how much a resource like my book could help.
The book shares the terrible reality people face when they want to be together and can’t because of U.S. immigration and federal marriage law. I was devastated as I recorded details and crafted stories to share. I was moved to tears by the photos and by the hope and thanks that came my way from grateful men and women who needed a lifeline and bared their heartache to help create a solution for us all.
I keep hoping that those who read my book and the blog and web site that keep it updated will keep the momentum going so that we can get a permanent solution to this terrible situation. This book, a comprehensive look at the subject of same-sex couples, immigration reform, where it has been and seems to be going, as well as resources, web sites and other pertinent information, can make a difference. Reading and sharing my story and those of the other families helps us all.
A new project really puts a face on this issue – literally. David W. Ross has taken portraits of LGBT binational families and a site shares those images and resources about this issue. Brave people have shared their images and details to keep moving the issue toward solution. I am there with Karin. We believe that visibility is a key part of winning over the hearts and minds of so many people who are not aware of the crisis we face as LGBT binational couples.
It’s scary to risk for my wife and my life with her. But I can’t hide from the fight. I have taken a huge step, filing for a marriage-based “green card” so Karin and I can be together permanently and safely in the United States. So we can travel when we want and where we want and why we want. So we can see our family in all countries as we want, as long as we want. Just like everyone else. That’s all I want. That’s all we expect. Nothing special, but to be treated like everyone else.
We don’t want to be yo-yo people any more. And we don’t want to be “love exiles.” If we leave America, we want it to be OUR choice.