Together for 25 Years Through Thick and Thin, Lynne and Alexis Share Their Story: Why We Must Defeat DOMA
I am Lynne, a US citizen in a domestic partnership with my Canadian life partner, Alexis. Though many see us as “married,” we legally cannot marry in California, and even if we could our marriage would not be recognized by the federal government. Each year we hope that this is the year we’ll finally be able to marry and have our relationship fully recognized so that, as a citizen, I can sponsor my wife for a green card, just as other American citizens are able to.
I was raised in a sleepy suburb of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley during the 1960s and 1970s. During this time, I was unaware of the discrimination that was prevalent toward gays and lesbians. I felt an attraction to a female friend when I was a girl, but knew somehow I could not mention this. I remember my older brother telling me, that two girls kissing each other was wrong and illegal. Hence, my first lesson of living in the shadows.
As I grew up and moved out on my own and entered the work force, I was drawn to and worked in non-traditional work for women in the mid-1970s. I worked in various positions of Shipping and Warehouse Management and have progressed into Logistics Analysis.
During the 1980s, I became aware of and got involved with the gay community. I was heavily involved with a group that helped gays and lesbians with the coming out process. I was involved first as a participant and then became a facilitator for leading discussion groups to help assist individuals with issues in coming out. During this time, “coming out” meant coming out to your family, not necessarily the world. I was still very deep in the closet where the rest of the world was concerned. I came out to my mother and sister and younger brother and though it was rough at first, my family began to understand and embrace me. After Alexis and I met and became a couple, my family embraced her as a member of our family. Alexis’ family accepted me fully as well. Her brother and his family come down from Canada and stay with us on their vacations as we are not able to cross the border into Canada to visit them.
Before I met Alexis, I had been in two gay relationships — one of eight years and one of two years duration. And though those relationships were meaningful I did not know or realize what real love was until Alexis and I became a couple. I had never met any binational couples before and was not aware of the restrictions they lived under. Yet I knew that when Alexis told me of these restrictions, there was nothing that could or would deter me from living the rest of my life with her. She is my life.
While I was growing up in California, Alexis grew up in Vancouver, BC, Canada, within a strict Mennonite community. Her father was a rigid fundamentalist minister. In high school, she excelled in the arts and dreamed of attending art school. Her father believed art was not a “real career” and pressed her to attend bible school, as all of her relatives did. After winning a fine arts scholarship in 1976, Alexis began saving and planning to attend school for a career in the arts.
In 1979, Alexis entered the United States on a student visa. She attended design school and worked part-time. During this time, she met her first gay partner and learned very quickly that gays and lesbian were not treated equally as heterosexual couples. She naively assumed they could legally marry and was shocked to learn that not only was marriage out of the question, she was not to admit under any circumstances to being gay during immigration interviews. A co-worker recommended an immigration attorney, and Alexis sought his assistance. The attorney recommended applying for one year of practical training after graduation, and a retainer was put in place. As graduation approached, Alexis attempted to reach the attorney repeatedly with no success. She learned that no paperwork had been submitted and battled to have the retainer fee returned.
With her student visa about to expire, Alexis consulted a second attorney. He recommended “laying low” and remaining in the U.S. until amnesty was available. He also made sexual advances toward her.
In 1980, Alexis and her then partner suffered a home invasion and attempted rape. They chose to go to Canada together, where Alexis could work and save for a 4-year college education. In 1981, Alexis visited the U.S. Consulate in Vancouver, where she learned that a Bachelor’s Degree was needed for her to qualify for a work visa as a “skilled worker.” During this time, Alexis’ partner suffered tremendous depression due to prolonged separation from her family. She returned to the U.S. to be with her family. Alexis followed six months later with a second visa.
After another year of school, funds dwindled and her second visa was set to expire. In 1983, she decided to remain in the United States to stay with her partner. These are the types of decisions binational couples are forced to make. Many of these decisions remain secretive and hardships remain unknown. Binational couples face a lack of freedom that affects both partners and their families.
Alexis and I met almost 30 years ago in Los Angeles and became fast friends. Five years later, after both our relationships ended, we began dating. Alexis was very nervous about the transition, fearing that if it didn’t work out, she would lose her best friend. Her fears were well founded as two of her previous gay relationships had folded, mostly due to the added stressors binational couples face. I, on the other hand, felt very optimistic believing we could have our friendship and a loving, romantic relationship – the best of both worlds. I knew within me that my love for her was so strong that nothing could come between us. I’m happy to say that, 25 years later, I was right.
In the mid-80s, I met Alexis and her partner at the time during various community functions. My partner at the time and I invited them over for dinner. Her partner and my partner had been in a previous relationship. Talk about a tangled web. Somehow, Alexis and I got stuck cooking the dinner while the two “exes” took a walk down memory lane. While preparing dinner, Alexis and I connected immediately and a friendship began. We lived and worked in the same vicinity and began carpooling. You get to know a person really well when you’re stuck in L.A. traffic during rush hour on a daily basis.
After Alexis’ relationship ended, she moved in with a friend. Though she no longer lived in the same vicinity, our friendship deepened. I would drive over to visit her on a daily basis and we would talk for hours. During this time both of us realized our feelings for each other were fast changing. By the end of November 1987, we were a couple. One and a half years later, we decided to make the move and live together.
We continued attending community events with friends, most of whom were unaware of the secret we held – that Alexis was a foreign national living in the shadows. It’s like living in a double closet. We joined a gay L.A. couples group and participated in many activities such as manning the booth during Christopher Street West celebrations and marching in the Pride parade. We attended many meetings and donated some of our lesbian artwork to raise funds for the organization. We served as the Hospitality Couple in the first year and the following year were nominated as Vice Chaircouple.
Alexis shared her past experience with me, she told me that being in a relationship and loving a binational spouse is extremely difficult. Every couple faces tough times, but the added fear and stress a binantional couple faces can be back breaking. I, ever the optimist, would not be deterred. I knew we were tenacious and determined, and would remain together in spite of the obstacles.
In the 1980s, an amnesty program was signed into law. We consulted with legal aides at a free clinic in Los Angeles, where we were disappointed to learned Alexis was 6 months shy of the date in order to qualify. She had not been “continuously illegal” during the law’s time frame.
In spite of not qualifying, our relationship continued to flourish and our families supported us. We always remained hopeful that one day we could legally marry and this nightmare would be over. It always seemed just around the corner.
Through the years, we repeatedly consulted legal counsel. They all told us the same thing: that there was nothing they could do unless we could legally marry or immigration reform would pass Congress.
By 1990, it had been seven years since Alexis had seen her family. We received a surprise call from her brother informing us that he was coming down and bringing Mum in tow. We had a great time showing them around Hollywood, traveling to the beach and just spending endless hours talking and reconnecting.
Throughout the 1990s we continued to take every step possible to validate our relationship. In 1993, when the City of West Hollywood offered the first Certificates of Domestic Partnership, we jumped at the opportunity. In August of that year, we received our Certificate of Domestic Partnership from the first city in southern California to do so. It felt like one step closer to marriage.
On November 27, 1995 we celebrated our eighth anniversary with a commitment ceremony lead by a legal minister. Invitations were sent, vintage wedding gowns purchased, and a friend offered their home for the ceremony. While my family was able to attend, Alexis’ family was unable to due to her Mum’s health and inability to travel at the time. We had written our own vows and said our “I dos”. Unlike heterosexual couples, however, we did not receive the Marriage Certificate after the ceremony. We did, however, enjoy a wonderful 3-day honeymoon in Laguna as a wedding gift from our closest friends.
In July 1996, we flew to Seattle with two friends and drove into western Canada, so Alexis could visit her mother. Alexis’ Mum had supported her since she came out in 1980 and consoled her when she learned that DOMA had been signed into law.
In 1997, Alexis’ Mum visited us, her second trip to California. Alexis’ Mum always treated me like a second daughter and would send us greeting cards to remember our anniversary and birthdays. During that visit, Alexis’ Mum wept with joy at the sight of the wedding gowns we kept.
In 1998, beyond our wildest dreams and imaginations, we were able to purchase a home together. This was one of the greatest joys of our relationship, the ability to nest as other couples did. We gardened, we decorated, we entertained and held family gatherings for the holidays. This was another step for us to be closer to marriage.
In 2001, I had to travel to New York for company business. It was a trip I did not want to make. It was in August, and my flight was originally scheduled to return on Tuesday, September 11th. I insisted with my employer at the time that I had to return before this date to attend classes that were starting on that same date. Prior to the trip, I directed Alexis on where the insurance policies were, I signed multiple checks in the event she needed funds, and told her that if anything happened to me she was to file a wrongful death suit. Little did I know that, because our relationship wasn’t recognized legally and DOMA prevented federal recognition, Alexis would never have been able to file a lawsuit had something happened to me. I was fortunate that I returned on Friday before the tragic event of 9/11. After that, we made an appointment with an attorney for Power of Attorney over medical decisions and finances.
After 9/11, the world changed for everyone and we were impacted as well. We understood the need for security but began to live a more fearful life. With security tightening around the country, Alexis’ mobility was limited because, rightly or wrongly, we feared heightened scrutiny. We felt our world grow smaller and were feeling more isolated from Alexis’ family. We learned of ICE raids within our area that tore families apart, children came home from school and no one was there. Husbands and wives waited for their spouses to come home, but they did not come. I became concerned for Alexis while I was at work. My sister and brother-in-law gave us a security door for Christmas. Lack of mobility also meant that Alexis could no longer drive. She decided the risk of being pulled over was too great. Today, an appointment 15 minutes away by car takes Alexis 1 ½ hours by bus. She relies on others for rides. It’s a forced dependency she hates. We are so fortunate to have a wonderful inner circle of friends who understand our situation and offer their support in any way. One of our friends calls it “circling the wagons.”
In July of 2003, we registered as Domestic Partners in the State of California. Again, this felt like one step closer to marriage and gave us a bit of hope.
Alexis’ Mum had suffered many health problems. With travel impacted, Alexis feared her status would not be resolved before her mother died. In 2006, Alexis received the phone call every daughter dreads. Her brother, a fire fighter, had found her mother collapsed on the floor. She was rushed to ICU. Alexis consulted another immigration attorney, who told her she could visit Canada but not return to the United States. She said goodbye to her Mum via cell phone. Alexis felt like a failed daughter and fell into a depression at the loss of her mother. Not able to be at her Mum’s deathbed or in attendance at her funeral, or to help her brother in person during this time was too much for her to bear.
It was during this time that the Congress was voting on immigration reform. Again, we hoped for humane change. Every time a vote would approach, Alexis would dust off her years of documentation in preparation to file.
Alexis sent a compassionate plea via postcard to every member of the United States Senate. She wrote: “I could not hold my Mother’s hand to comfort her. I could not be at her side to say good-bye. The Senate returns on the day of my Mother’s funeral, which I cannot attend. Crossing borders could ban me from the U.S., the country I love. I work hard, pay taxes, and contribute to society. I want to come out of the shadows. For years I have hoped to see my Mother one last time. I prayed for humane immigration reform that would allow me to earn my legalization. We are one of many families separated by fear. Please remember me and honor my Mother when you vote on immigration reform.”
For so many years, we hoped that DOMA would be overturned so we could legally marry and I could sponsor my wife, as most other citizens do. We contemplated living in exile in Canada, where I as a US citizen have more rights in Canada as Alexis’ legal partner/wife than I have in my own country. Alexis insisted that we stay in California and not pull me away from my family. She knew what separation felt like.
Though we have been dealt some legal blows as a gay couple, those blows do not divide us. In spite of all of the laws that have come out to hold us back as a gay couple, it has not stopped us from loving each other, from being committed to each other. If anything, our bond and our commitment to each other grows stronger. During times when it has been difficult or when an unfavorable legal decision comes out, I confirm to Alexis that that’s OK, no matter what, we’re still here, we’re still together.
For over twenty-five years we have clung to the rocks, waiting for DOMA to be overturned or immigration reform which would include keeping gay families together. We have consulted, planned, hoped, had hopes dashed, read countless articles, met with attorneys, and done everything we could. Even though DOMA currently restricts us, we remain hopeful. Inclusion of LGBT families in comprehensive immigration reform, under debate now in Congress, is so critical. Gay families must be treated equally and not be torn apart. DOMA hurts families in far reaching ways. Anyone who knows what we have been through for the past 25 years would know immediately that all families are the same, that all love is the same, and the our immigration laws that are meant to protect us and keep us together must work for all of us.
We are grateful for the love we share. Each workday morning when we get ready for work, we say to each other, “You’re my everything. You’re my life.”
We feel incredibly blessed to have each other. We are incredibly grateful for this gift and this opportunity to share our story alongside all the other binational couples who have joined The DOMA Project.