Gemma and Jessica: DOMA Forces Another Lesbian American Citizen Into Exile To Keep Her Family Together
In July, it is never really that hot in the U.K. Certainly not compared to the hot, sticky humidity of a bustling metropolis like New York City. It was a hot summer day when I finally met the love of my life, my comparable soul, Jessica, face-to-face. Before this we had spent many months allowing ourselves to get to know one another through text, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Skype. By July 2011, I knew that I loved her. We never imagined the hardships and tests that our love would face over the following twelve months.
Civil Unions have been legal in the United Kingdom since December 2005 and, like marriage, they allow same sex couples to take their vows and enter into a life of partnership recognized in law by the government. In fact, you might say that the only difference is the name. They are two different words but for most purposes they grant the same rights for same sex and heterosexual couples, at least within the borders of the U.K. As a British woman I expected that the United States would allow its citizens the same rights. I learned otherwise, when I met my sweetheart, Jessica, an American from the state of New York, through a mutual love of retro gaming on YouTube.
As our initial friendship grew, we realized that we were both aspirational young women who wanted more in our lives than shiftless layabouts. Like water to a sponge we fused together to become virtually inseparable. At the end of June 2011, I was the first to broach my true feelings. “Am I falling in love with you?” I asked and Jessica replied, “I hope so.” These words often echo in my mind and made me smile during some of the darkest days over the next twelve months.
Within days we decided that we were going to do what was necessary to be together. Both of us had excellent careers: Jessica worked for AT&T in Philadelphia and I was employed by Her Majesty’s Prison Service. As fiery as ever, I soon decided that I had to be with my Jessica. I had never felt like this about anybody and had to satisfy my desire to be next to her. Within a week I booked a flight from Manchester to New York and told my boss that I would be back after seven days.
On July 12, 2011, I flew to New York City and I did not leave Jessica’s side until November 22, 2011. Seven days, became a month, and then longer. After the first day in the U.S. I asked Jessica, “Can I stay until the end of the month?” I re-organized my timetable at work and changed my flights. Soon, Jessica and I realized that we did not want to separate. We decided to seek some advice about gaining myself a H-1B work visa. We got some bad advice and ended up losing a lot of money on lawyers who did not give us the right guidance. Despite my professional background I could not get a job offer in my field of criminology.
Our plan was for me to return to the U.K. at the end of July, give my notice at work and then return on the Visa Waiver Visitor program. But Jessica and I still did not want to separate. Jessica made the decision to resign from AT&T in Philadelphia, and traveled to join me in the U.K. in August. She had also pulled out her 401K in order to secure us financially over the next few months until she could secure a job. Further complicating our desire to build a future together, was the fact that Jessica could not move to the U.K. on a permanent basis as she had two daughters, one in her care and the other lived with the child’s father in D.C.
During August, I sold all my personal belongings, my sports car, my piano, and my collection of DVDs. I had a mortgage and gave up a job promotion that would have been worth an additional £6,000 per year, all so I could return to the USA with Jessica at the end of August 2011. During this time, Jessica and I traveled around the U.K. and she helped me to pack the remainder of my belongings. I had three suitcases full of clothes. I had shipped out my beloved 22.5″ iMac computer. I was all set.
Jessica and I had become engaged to be married early on in our relationship. People often said, “When you know, you know.” I used to laugh thinking at how pathetic this statement was. My naïve attitude turned out to be wrong in my own personal case, because this little cliché did prove true for us. I had to marry Jessica because I loved her so much. I wanted to be tied to her in every way possible. Fortunately Jessica felt the same way and we wanted to seal our love by marrying in the city where we had met in person.
Shortly after our return from the U.K., we booked a small and intimate ceremony on the Top of the Rock (literally on top of Rockefeller Center) in New York with Jessica’s daughter, Ashleigh by our side. On September 16, 2011, Jessica and I exchanged vows and moved closer to becoming the family we yearned to be. DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act that denies federal recognition to our marriage) will never detract from the beauty of that day.
With little time to fully embrace married life, we went back to Philadelphia. We were so happy! It was the greatest feeling to be married to my true soul mate. I felt so much love and I knew that this love would get us through the hardships that were about to land at our feet.
Over the next few months, Jessica worked hard to apply for jobs in her field. Additionally, we wanted to remain together so we continued to sell personal items to raise funds to support ourselves and book my flights to and from the UK. I was allowed 90 days at a time under the Visa Waiver Visitor Program. We’d wake up, search for items to sell, buy food with the sale money, feel happy that we were together, fall asleep at night and do it all over again the next day. This habitual selling ritual continued until December 2011 when we were fortunate enough to hear that Jessica had been offered a job starting in January 2012. Her tireless efforts had finally paid off.
Prior to Jessica getting a job, I spent four days out of the U.S. in November 2011. It was the first time we had been apart. I remember being at Philadelphia airport thinking “What if Homeland Security won’t allow me back in?” I watched Jessica walk away from me as I was hurried through the security gates. I prayed that this was not the last time I’d see her. Fear spread through my body. I felt totally alone and furious that I had to leave my wife behind because of DOMA.
A pre-clearance experience in Dublin rubbed the effects of DOMA in my face even more last November. My heart was racing as a female officer signaled me towards an older gentleman at the customs and immigration counter. I expected that I was going to have a hard time with him. With his down-turned mustache, greying hair, and sour appearance, I greeted him with a friendly “Hi.” Most binational couples have had trouble at some point or another at U.S. borders. This was mine. Five minutes passed. With sweaty palms, I placed my fingers on the small screen upon command. More questions and sounds of him tapping on his keyboard filled the next five minutes. Eventually he stood up and said, without explanation, “Follow me.” I passed portraits of the President and Vice President as I nervously walked down a corridor. Eventually I was called to a room, where a middle aged man proceeded to throw my clothes out of my hand luggage, went through my papers, presumably searching for some reason I should not be allowed to visit the United States. Thankfully, he stamped me in and I felt a wave of relief washing over me. I was going to be reunited with my wife.
Christmas came and went. We were still happily married and getting on with our life in the best way possible. Around this time, I had been accepted into John Jay School of Criminal Justice to complete my Masters. Financially, it was a long shot but we saw it as a way at staying together for at least two years. For any binational couple that have taken this route, you’ll know that you have to prove that you have the funds to pay your first years tuition, room and board. A family member provided evidence of the funds, and listed Jessica as the person who would support me. This was probably a bad idea because it likely identified us as a couple. We decided not to risk it at the last minute after getting some good advice from The DOMA Project.
In February, we stood at Boston Logan International Airport. About ten feet away from a sign that said “Passengers Only” I cuddled my Jessica for the last time. We both cried uncontrollably. We were shaking! I remember feeling complete anger at being in this situation again! This time, I knew we’d have to spend months apart. I’d spent almost seven months in the U.S. and I’d have to give it some time before re-entering. Part of me wanted to go and get back into the car and drive away from that airport. I wonder how many binational couples have considered this thought? Shall I stay with my love? Or shall I leave her because it’s the law? The thought and whole scene haunts me to my core.
Returning to the United Kingdom with nothing, I took up residence on my brother’s spare mattress. Jessica and I returned to cyberspace to communicate with each other, re-experiencing the challenge of the time difference. One month turned into two. We had decided that I was going to try and come back to the U.S. on a proper tourist visa, instead of as a 90-day Visa Waiver Visitor, but the application was denied by the U.S. Consular officer at the Embassy. It took the Consular Officer just two minutes to decide that I could not overcome the presumption that I was intending to stay in the U.S. (Ha, I thought. I had had many opportunities to do that and I always left, even when my heart told me to do otherwise.) I left that Embassy in London and cried my heart out. I called Jessie and I begged her to come to England.
As I write this we are in July 2012 and we have just been through an immigration process. The U.S. is losing two more of its citizens because of DOMA. Ashleigh’s father gave Jessica full legal authority to take Ashleigh to the U.K. To her credit, Ashleigh convinced her father by saying: “I really want to go so we can have a better life away from DOMA.” Even a 12-year-old child has felt the impact of this law, and like so may other children, she has had to watch her mother cry over losing her wife across numerous time zones.
On June 6, 2012, Jessica and Ashleigh had their settlement visas accepted for the United Kingdom. After months of screaming, crying, poor sleep, anxiety and depression, I was finally accepting that I could have Jessica and Ashleigh here with no fear of separation. I had built a life back in the U.K. by getting a job back with Her Majesty’s Prison Service and found a beautiful house to have my family live in. We used the services of an experienced British immigration lawyer to help us venture through this bureaucratic process.
This has been a long fight and now we are hoping to have some normality. I’m looking forward to pushing a cart around the supermarket with my wife. I never thought that would be something I would say but having spent over 50% of our marriage apart, I’d go on a date to the supermarket with Jessica every day.
Jessica told me that she would be sad to leave her country, being forced into exile. She said, “I never wanted to leave the U.S. Since I met you, I realized that I have to leave in order to be with my wife and child all under one roof.”