Seventeen Years After They First Met, These Two Gay Dads Are Fighting DOMA To Keep Their Family Together
Calvin and I met in Beijing in 1996. I was a young Dutch student, studying at Beijing University to obtain my master’s degree in International Environmental Law and Intellectual Property Law, while he was there on the UCLA Education Abroad Program.
Calvin grew up in a small town in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. After the war in Vietnam ended in 1975 and the American forces withdrew from the country, his family was thrust into poverty as a result of their support of US forces. Life under the new regime proved to be difficult: in the aftermath of the war, raising five children on a school teacher’s meager salary was a challenge.
With few options available, Calvin’s father, with his wife’s blessing, made the difficult decision to leave his wife and five young children behind in Vietnam to search for a better future, like thousands of other refugees before him. Calvin and his brother followed their father’s footsteps several years later. After four failed attempts, significant losses of hard earned savings to cover the costs of those “border crossing” attempts, and even a month’s jail-time when Calvin was nine years old, Calvin and his brother survived a horrific boat trip and made it to a refugee camp in a neighboring country by the ages of 12 and 13, respectively.
Eventually, Calvin and his brother were able to establish contact with their father, who several years earlier had made the journey across the Pacific Ocean as a refugee, ultimately settling in Northern California. Calvin and his brother remained in the refugee camp as minors for another year before they were finally reunited with their father in the U.S.
Once in the U.S., Calvin quickly thrived. He was an honors student in high school. Ten years after those traumatic events occurred, Calvin graduated with a double major at one of the finest universities in the country. Most important, perhaps, he became an American citizen.
As for me, I grew up in a small, religious, and socially conservative village in the Netherlands. I wore wooden shoes to school (yes, we small-town folk actually still wear them). My daily packed lunch consisted of bread, cheese and milk. My sister and I rode our bicycles for 20 kilometer to school and back every day regardless of weather conditions. My mom would knit our sweaters, my grandma would knit our socks, bedspreads and curtains. We grew our own food and spent many afternoon tending to the garden. On my days off, my after-school daycare program involved me jumping over the backyard fence to climb trees in the forest together with my cat Mickey, until mom called for dinner at exactly 5:30 every day.
Growing up in such a small town, I did not know of another gay person or even fully understood what it meant to be gay. The word did not exist in my world. As time passed, I felt suffocated and knew I needed to break out on my own as soon as possible and find a place where I could live freely and be myself.
At the age of 18, I moved to the other side of the country, to Maastricht, to study Mandarin and English. Traveling to Spain a lot, I had developed a keen interest in seeing more of the world. Seeing more of what it means to be free. Upon my graduation and official certification as a Certified Translator-Interpreter, I was given a scholarship to continue my studies at Beijing University.
Whether it was fate, random coincidence, or predetermined destiny (“yuan fen” in Mandarin), Calvin and I met while we were both studying in Beijing, China in the summer of 1996. The day we met, we didn’t in fact meet. I was walking up the steps of the entrance to my foreign student dormitory building, on my way to class, when Calvin rode by on his bicycle. I later learned he was, at that time, studying at a university across town, but was visiting some friends from his Education Abroad Program at my campus. What initially caught my attention was the manner in which he was riding his bicycle; he was horizontal on the bicycle, hands grabbing the handle bar and balancing his stomach on the saddle and legs stretched out. Chinese society is focused strongly on following rules and such a display of individuality was extremely rare. In surprise, I stopped in my tracks, put down my school bag and just stared at him in wonder. I was at a loss for words. I didn’t know if it was because I had never seen a bicycle ridden the way he did (since I grew up with riding one), or the fact that he so freely went against conformity, without any care. It was one of those moments that only lasts a few seconds in time, but last forever in our heart. Watching him, I felt like someone had just knocked on my door and something was about to change. He also noticed me, smiled but said nothing.
Several months after, we met again, or rather, met. In a city of 16 million people, we met in an underground gay bar. Being gay was still illegal back then. There was only one gay bar in Beijing at the time, hidden deep in a hutong, which was forbidden territory for foreigners. The police raided the bar about once a month, and whoever was caught being there, would disappear. No prison or labor camps for gays. They just disappeared; they ceased to exist. My Chinese friends and I had to outrun undercover law enforcement once already, so I was more than aware of the risk involved. Yet that day we had both, separately, decided to wait for the sun to go down and carefully sneak into the hutong. We had both found the hidden club, and were enjoying the music, company and the feeling of being part of something exciting, dangerous and pure. In that way, being there reminded me much of the secret jazz club the cast-out minister daughter in The Color Purple had started. Being there felt very much like that.
Calvin and I met and fell in love within minutes. Although I was in no mood to meet anyone and fought it furiously, it was clear to both of us that this was it: The One. Fighting this was obviously irrelevant. The cautious and conservative-natured Calvin asked me to marry him a within a fortnight. We moved in together soon after, which was an easy feat, since boy and girl students were not allowed to stay in the same building and students shared their room with one other student. We had a great year.
I started working at the Dutch embassy later that school year, to make some money to be able to move to Los Angeles, to enable Calvin to graduate. I arrived in the U.S. with little money, two suitcases, no job and allowed to stay for a maximum of 90 days on the Visa Waiver Program. Besides that, I brought faith, hope and determination. Within weeks I was able to obtain a job at the local Dutch mission, granting me a diplomatic visa to remain in the U.S. Giving up on my learned trade, I accepted the job gladly, knowing it would allow me to stay with my fiancé.
For twelve years, we both worked hard and built up our live together. We made many good friends and enjoyed the closeness of Calvin’s family. We consulted many lawyers over the years to find a way to obtain a residence permit, but my diplomatic visa blocked all chances on that, time and again. We lived a happy life, enjoying our friends and family, climbing the government ladder and enjoying each other. Calvin was offered a high level position with the federal government and soon passed me by career-wise. I knew I was confined to my job through my visa, but never regretted it, since it allowed me to be with my love.
In 2005 we got married in a beautiful little castle in the middle of the forest in Ommen, The Netherlands. Our family and friends, even from the States, all gathered there with us in witness. Our honeymoon in Spain was equally amazing and beautiful. We adopted our gorgeous daughter in 2006. Born in our own city, out of a Dutch father and a Vietnamese mother, the match was unthinkable and we took it as a sign. Our family bloomed and we were all happy as peas in a pod.
In 2009, the economic crisis hit my birth country and the Dutch missions in the US started a drastic regionalization of jobs. The Consulate General I worked for was forced to let go or transfer 18 of their 20 employees. I was one of them. Panic hit home now. Our contacts with lawyers intensified dramatically, but to no avail. There was no solution. We had to leave home. Luckily, if there is such thing while being exiled, I was offered an amazing position with the Dutch Embassy in Washington, D.C. Even though we left home, kicking and screaming, at least we knew we’d be okay financially. Calvin was able to obtain a transfer and even managed to become supervisor, making even more than I already was. Within 3 months the whole family was back together, including our two cats.
The first two years in D.C. I did everything on auto-pilot. Made sure I did my job as well as possible, drop our daughter off at school, breakfast, lunch, dinner, doctor’s appointments, etc., while both suddenly being emerged in a highly demanding jobs. The first two years in our new lives, we barely existed.
In 2011, at the end of a trip to Spain with my brother, I finally woke up and realized we were withering away. In Madrid’s airport, I was unable to board the return flight to a life that was not ours. I could not lie to myself any longer: despite our constant fight to be who we are, we had been forced to give up far too much to keep our family together. The past two years had eroded our faith in life and we had become an empty shell of the happy-go-lucky couple our friends knew. We had lost ourselves, against our will. I told my baby brother: “I don’t want to go back there.” Surprised, he asked me: “Why not?” The moment I heard myself saying: “Because when I’m there, I’m different.” it all hit me and I burst out crying and made my way out of the secured area of the airport. I could not breathe.
I suffered a nervous breakdown. Anxiety attacks, uncontrollable shaking, crying. So much crying. I couldn’t stand to be in D.C. anymore and often disappeared into a world of my own, sitting outside for hours in the middle of the night, when nobody could see me. My heart had broken to pieces, together with my faith in life, in justice, in love. In my efforts to deal with the exile and all that came with it, and to make sure that the family could stay together and was taken care of, I had erased myself for the past two years, to such an extent that there were gaps in my memory. I found photographs of a Christmas party at our house, showing my sister from the Netherlands had visited us. It’s impossible to understand how much it hurts to find out what happened in your own life, by having to listen to other people’s recount of it, years after the fact.
My husband was extremely supportive and lovingly filled me in on things whenever something crossed our path that I did not recall. He held my hand, whenever I got caught off guard by them. With the tireless support of my husband, our family and our friends, I slowly got back to my feet and started to have faith again. I started relentlessly looking for ways to undo this exile. I wrote many letters to Senators, Congressmen and to President Obama. Being an immigration officer myself, I consulted with employees of USCIS, lawyers, my co-workers, my direct boss and even my ambassador. With their active support and a strong letter from the ambassador, we filed a green card application as a soon-to-be retired diplomat in November 2011. There was much, in retrospect, that I didn’t know about this process; despite all my networking, I really had no idea what I was filing. I did not know until this year that I was not even eligible to file it because I was still employed as a diplomat.
My husband, our daughter (now 6) and I were officially summoned to appear at the USCIS interview in 2012, which we thought was the final stage of the process; the officer explained to the three of us that our application would be sent to their headquarters for review, made it clear that the chance of approval was minimal and out of kindness even referred us to the Human Rights Campaign and The DOMA Project. This time, it was Calvin, now a high-ranking supervisor with the Department of Justice, who broke down and cried and begged for understanding. The silence during the long ride “home” from the Baltimore USCIS office was heartbreaking.
As soon as we arrived at the house, we decided to take our lives back into our own hands. We decided to sell the house in DC and buy a house in our hometown and just move back. Screw the world. Calvin submitted his transfer request the next morning. I would find a job based on my temporary employment card, and hopefully human rights will have evolved sufficiently by the time USCIS decides on our case. Go home to Los Angeles, or burst.
While all this was happening, we were contacted by Los Angeles County to let us know that our daughter’s biological mother had given birth to a baby boy and given it up for adoption. We happily made it known that we were most interested in adding him to our family also, but quickly noticed the additional pressure from that side to have us move back home as quickly as possible.
By July 2012, we managed to obtain Calvin’s transfer and find a temporary job for me at the Dutch consulate. We took our chances and proceeded to move back to our old neighborhood, close to a great elementary school. We made the big move, arrived safely and within a few weeks had made our new house into a real home. We worked tirelessly to fix the place up, while continuing the placement procedures and visits with our new son-to-be.
Our son is now officially placed in our home. He is well-adjusted and happy, as is our daughter. My husband and I are working hard to find new employment for me, once my temporary contract ends next month. His employment at least is steady now, giving us some peace and breathing room.
We wagered our future on the results of the elections and so far it paid off. Sure, our income is significantly less and my career as a Consular Officer is over, but we are happy here, surrounded by our family and friends. We will make things work here, one way or another.
The green card application was denied, as expected. I have no way of staying legally in the United States. I have a husband and two children, all Americans, but I am nobody according to the law of the United States, all because of Section 3 of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. We will continue to fight; we have hope. We will urge the President of the United States to put into place a policy for same-sex binational couples like us. We will file a green card case and ask that it be put into “abeyance” until DOMA has been struck down by the Supreme Court.
The important thing we have learned is never give up on your dreams. Through all of our struggles in the pursuit of happiness, we know that we must never give up; we must speak up. For this reason, we are not idly sitting by hoping for change. We have sought professional guidance, have taken calculated risks, and have continued sharing our story. Now more than ever, it is important to raise the visibility of stories like ours, stories that illustrate how DOMA threatens the well-being of families like ours. On the eve of oral arguments before the Supreme Court on DOMA Section 3’s constitutionality, we want the Justices to know that Americans will not accept a decision that will subject our family and all other binational families to further hardships. It is my hope that we are able to offer our children a happy and secure future. The awareness-building we are doing today builds on advocacy of years past, helping to make that future a reality. We hope you will join us by sharing our story with family and friends.