Born in America, But Forced by DOMA to Leave Her Country, Karlynn Lives in Exile with Laura in Northern England
My name is Karlynn and I am a native of Southern California. If you were to have asked me two years ago where I would be living today, I would never have guessed that the answer would be northern England. While my days here have been filled with abundant joy, the circumstances that have resulted in my new life abroad are not by my design. Nor am I the only U.S. citizen forced into this specific situation.
As Americans, we all wear labels imposed on us from the day we are born. I proudly share many of these socially-constructed labels with millions of Americans: tax-payer, law-abiding citizen, California voter, daughter, sister, friend, granddaughter, and co-worker, for example. However, only one of those labels prevents me from living in the country of my birth. It denies me and my family our fundamental rights that should be granted to all human beings.
It is all because I am gay and my partner, Laura, is not an American citizen.
It’s because of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents the spouses of gay and lesbian American citizens from being recognized as our spouses for any purpose, including immigration. This discriminatory practice is spelled out plain-as-day on the U.S. Department of the State website: “Same-sex marriages are not recognized by immigration law for the purpose of immigrating to the U.S.” Just the fact that my own country is advertising this shameful violation of my rights is itself shocking to the conscience.
It is completely possible for a opposite-sex couples in our situation to submit a petition and application to immigrate to the United States. They will be required to submit supporting evidence to prove the validity of their marriage in order to eventually be granted the permission for their foreign spouse or fiancée to come to the United States. However, this routine process that keeps loving, committed couples together, is not even a remote possibility for lesbian and gay binational couples.
Laura and I became aware of the complexities faced by binational couples while we were still in the United States and the expiration date of her visa began to draw near. I knew without a doubt that she was the one I wanted to spend my life with, and vice versa, though we weren’t engaged at the time. We started brainstorming heavily, spending many hours trying to solve the perplexing riddle of how we were going to keep her in the country.
Our search led us to consider many options, palatable and unpalatable. Ruling out one after one, the only possible and legal solution we could come up with was to have her go back to England for a few weeks and return to the U.S.A. on a tourist visa. We understood, however, that this course of action would really only buy us 90 more days together — a temporary respite before we would have to face the same grim scenario once more. All that mattered to us was reuniting as quickly as possible, so we proceeded with the plan.
I will never forget the morning her visa expired, reluctantly driving to the airport and being forced to say goodbye to my sweetheart due to circumstances outside of my control. It felt uncanny to bid adieu to one another because we hadn’t spent one day apart since we first met. With all the strength I could muster, I put on my bravest face. On the inside, I was unable to shake the hollow feeling deep in the pit of my stomach that told me that our time apart was going to be significantly longer than two weeks. The optimist in me thought instead about her return to California. One of my ideas was to surprise her with an engagement ring at the airport.
After what seemed like forever, two weeks had passed. It was a day filled with a mixture of relief and excitement, knowing that I was just a few hours away from properly proposing to my wife-to-be. Around midday, I received an unexpected phone call. The unmistakably familiar voice on the other line Laura’s. I was thrown off guard by the sorrow that resonated in her words as she spoke. During her layover in Philadelphia she was stopped by Customs and Border Protection. Because she had attempted to re-enter the country too soon after her previous visa had expired, she underwent additional scrutiny as is typical for any repeat or frequent visitor suspected of having the intent to immigrate. As a result, U.S. authorities would not permit her to continue on to San Diego. Instead, she was detained and required to board the next flight back to England. Suddenly, the full knowledge that she would not be back in my arms on that day swept over me. I was devastated. I was powerless to do anything, while my own government cruelly denied me the right to spend even 90 days more with the love of my life. She was in fact, only visiting, because that’s all she was permitted to do. And then, to add insult to injury, I was hours away from proposing to her. To top it all off, Laura revealed to me that she, too, had purchased an engagement ring during her time in England with the plan to ask for my hand in marriage at the airport as well. Fighting back tears, we proposed to each other and vowed to spend the rest of our lives together — all via text message.
Just like that, the life we were beginning to build together had been thrust into a state of limbo. While apart, we found that the geographical distance, the 8-hour time difference, and the monetary and emotional costs of our separation proved to be formidable challenges. Thankfully, the correspondence between us continued uninterrupted due to a steady stream of text messaging, email, international calls, video conferencing, and old fashioned letter writing. Of course, nothing can replace being in the same physical space at the same time with the one you love. So, despite our access to the modern conveniences of communication, the distance made each day an agony. We once again put our minds together to come up with a lasting solution.
Laura had no qualms about relocating to the U.S.A. This was ideal because I was in the process of actively pursuing my second Bachelor’s Degree in nursing. I had every intention of finishing the course, but the daily torment of not having her around was starting to affect my studies. Getting her here had become my top priority. We mulled over the issue for weeks and weeks, examining each idea from every angle, but to no avail.
As the days progressed, it was clear that there was no way to bring my partner into this country as my fiancée. The more we searched, the more I began to grow frustrated. The love of my life was constantly fighting back tears, battling depression, unable to eat or carry on with her life in England. I sometimes felt that it was my fault, that I was to blame for putting her through this. It was the first time in my life I had felt discriminated against and one of the few times that I have felt ashamed of and embarrassed by my country.
With no other options, I decided to forgo my life here in California to be with my partner in England. In the course of three weeks, I handed in my notice at my place of employment, quit the nursing program, cashed out my retirement, gave away or sold all of my possessions, and moved out of my apartment. That was the easy part. Informing my friends, co-workers, and family members of my plans took all the courage I could find. The general consensus was that I had lost my mind. Of course, these types of remarks were easily forgiven because they came from a place of caring deeply for my well-being and protecting my best interest. I was taking a huge leap of faith – it was the single bravest thing I have ever done in my entire life.
Once the dust settled, I was blown away with the amount of support my friends and family provided me. It was with this encouragement that I was able to find the strength to work on all the paperwork and documentation needed to obtain an entry visa to the United Kingdom. At last, our 102 days of separation had finally come to an end. I would get the chance to propose to my fiancée in person.
Laura and I married on November 9, 2010, in a civil partnership ceremony fully recognized by the U.K. government. Now, I have full permission to work legally, equal access to all marriage benefits, and the right to adopt children — same as any Briton. Unfortunately, this still does not change the reality that our union is not recognized by the U.S. government, leaving me with two very limiting options:
- My wife and I can remain in England together for an indefinite amount of time until Federal laws change in the U.S.A. During that time, we would not have the luxury of traveling together between our respective homelands as we please, as bi-national heterosexual couples are able to do.
- I can return to California alone without my wife: bitter, completely empty, and heartbroken. Frankly, this has no chance of happening.
Ask yourself what you would do if you were forced to tailor your life around such “choices.” In the name of life, liberty, and our pursuit of happiness, we will continue to call for equality until it is fully realized. If the U.K. amends its laws to end unequal treatment of lesbian and gay couples, then I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the United States of America can too. And that is why we have joined The DOMA Project to fight for an end to the exile and separation of lesbian and gay binational couples. We believe that it is important to speak out and to let the government know the consequences of this unjust law. We support The DOMA Project’s advocacy for humanitarian parole to allow spouses and partners of lesbian and gay Americans to enter the United States and keep couples together. If such a temporary remedy were available to Laura and me, I would not have been forced to uproot myself from my home and my family and move thousands of miles away. Every day that I live in forced exile because I am gay, is one day too many. To end this, we all must make our voices heard now.