LOVE TRIUMPHS: Together for 26 Years in Five Countries, Eleanor and Fumiko Fight DOMA as Exiles in Canada
Fumiko and I met in New York City in the fall of 1986. I was 46 years old and working as a computer programmer. I had three children in their early twenties. Fumiko, a Japanese woman of 37, had been living in Mexico for some years, studying weaving. She was living in New York at the time with a friend and was planning to go from there to Guatemala, where she wanted to learn their indigenous weaving techniques.
Because she was looking for an opportunity to practice English and I was looking to learn Japanese, our friend Martita introduced us. Immediately, I was fascinated by Fumiko’s strong personality and deep voice, though it wasn’t clear at the beginning whether Fumiko was a lesbian. Little by little we got acquainted, with our Japanese-English dictionary never far from hand, and eventually we became lovers. For six weeks, we spent a lot of time together, but when January came, Fumiko had to leave. That month was a flurry of activity as I quit my job, subletted my apartment, and departed to join Fumiko in Antigua, Guatemala.
What a strange and exotic place! And what a wonderful reunion! We rented a small house in Antigua and bought a few furnishings. Life there was simple albeit a little boring, with the exception of our new love affair. Both being on tourist visas, we had to exit the country every three months, so there were a couple of interesting trips over the border to Mexico. By the third exit, we decided to leave Guatemala and go to live in Mexico City, where Fumiko had lived before. Taking many bolsas of accumulated household goods, we found a nice apartment in the center of town, right behind the American Embassy. Fumiko introduced me to her many friends there, but I grew increasingly restless, caught between Spanish and Japanese and having no real business in Mexico, aside from being with Fumiko. Eventually, I decided to leave and “do something else”. It had been a year since I had left New York.
“Something else” turned out to be a journey to Japan! Fumiko wrote to her various relatives and issued orders that this “Eleanor” was to be treated like a queen. They took me to local festivals, treated me to endless dinners, and even included me in a weekend trip to a hot-spring resort. After a few weeks, I found a job teaching English and got an apartment and a working visa. I was lonely, but Japan was fascinating and I discovered many things about the country on my own, being forced to do things myself that I might have relied on Fumiko to handle had she been there. I studied the Japanese language, kimono-wearing, abacus-calculating and even won a speech contest in Japanese! After about seven months, Fumiko left Mexico and returned to Japan to join me. We lived together for the remaining five months of my stay. In May of 1989, we returned to New York together.
We lived together in New York for a total of five years. Fumiko studied English, and studied English, and studied English. After six months, her tourist visa expired, and she applied for an extension. She was turned down. A postcard arrived from INS (the precursor to USCIS) saying that she would be deported if she didn’t leave immediately. Then nothing. She was suddenly undocumented. Fumiko couldn’t work, but I was making good money as a computer programmer while studying linguistics at the CUNY Graduate Center part time. We started getting to know other immigrants, with and without valid documentation, and realized that even undocumented immigrants have a life, and in New York City not such a bad one. Someone told us that “undocumented aliens” could attend one of the universities in New York, and even get the resident tuition rate. That was very exciting to Fumiko, who had never been to college, so she spent the next year studying English even harder and taking the TOEFL several times. Finally, in September of 1992, she entered LaGuardia Community College.
For Fumiko, LaGuardia was a wonderful experience. She read books, wrote papers, visited museums and libraries, and discovered great satisfaction in learning, thinking, and discussing a whole range of subjects. Her interest was especially kindled by cultural anthropology: the customs, beliefs, art, and mythology of various societies. She found the American system of education very stimulating, with emphasis placed on the value of each person’s contribution, each culture’s differences. Also, around this time I started attending meetings of the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force (later known as Immigration Equality) an organization which had been formed in 1993 by Lavi Soloway, who is also co-founder of The DOMA Project. Through this involvement, I started to participate in advocacy as a member of a community of lesbian and gay binational couples.
In January of 1994 Fumiko graduated from LaGuardia with an Associate of Arts degree and entered Hunter College as a junior, but she was increasingly anxious about money. Without valid documented status, she couldn’t work in the United States, and I was now a full-time student living off a small inheritance, so there wasn’t much money to go around. At 46, Fumiko worried more and more about getting sick, having no insurance or savings to fall back on, and no pension for her old age. Perhaps also the discomfort of being totally dependent on me added to the stress of living in a foreign country, in a foreign language.
Fumiko returned to Japan in July 1994. She got a job in Tokyo that she was pleased with, and began to rebuild her life there. I visited Tokyo for two weeks over New Year (the big holiday in Japan). I was now a doctoral candidate in linguistics at CUNY and, at 54, I felt that if I didn’t finish soon, it was unlikely that I ever would. Fortunately, I managed to get a graduate student fellowship in Japan for the summer of 1995, so Fumiko and I were able to be together for most of three months. After returning to New York and my dissertation research; long distance phone calls continued once a week, with e-mails in between.
In July of 1996, after a 10-month separation, I packed up my computer and 70 lbs. of Xeroxed references and went to Tokyo to work on my dissertation there. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, I was able to do my writing and research abroad! I spent six months in Japan in two 3-month stays (the length of a tourist visa), and returned to New York in February 1997 to complete my degree.
After I graduated with a Ph.D. in October, 1997, I went to Japan and got a job teaching English, and eventually a post-doctoral fellowship for two years. We both enjoyed those years in Japan (1995-2001, more or less), though we knew it wasn’t a permanent situation. During that time, Fumiko spent a couple of years completing the college work that she had started in New York, and eventually qualified for a student visa to the U.S. So, in 2001, we both returned to New York.
For three years, we tried various arrangements. I did some adjunct teaching and eventually found an IT job, where I worked until my retirement in 2007. Fumiko studied web design, and did an apprenticeship in real estate. Eventually, however, the visa that Fumiko held had to be renewed and she could not show the proper documents. Faced with an inflexible immigration system that had no room for her, in 2004 she decided to return to Japan once more.
At this point, it seemed there was no way for us to be together. It is is notoriously difficult to get permanent residency in Japan, especially for a person over 60, nearing retirement. So Fumiko got a job in Japan (one that she enjoyed very much) and reconnected with her friends there, building a new life. I was forlorn. Fortunately, I happened to hear a talk by a Canadian immigration lawyer, and learned that it was possible for both of us to emigrate to Canada. Previously unthinkable, it suddenly seemed like a desirable solution for a couple out of options. We began preparing our applications in early 2005.
In the summer of 2007, just after my retirement, we found out that our applications were approved by the Canadian consulate. By that time, Fumiko had created a new career for herself in Japan, working with developmentally disabled young adults. Being in Japan also meant being available to assist her older sister, who has debilitating osteoporosis. It was difficult for her to leave but, for both of us, being together turned out to be more important than any other consideration, and we are grateful to Canada for making that possible. Neither Japan nor the United States offered us this hospitality.
Fumiko began to wind down her life in Japan, arriving in New York once again in the fall of 2008. Meanwhile, I was overseeing the care of my mother, Vicki, who also lived in New York and had Alzheimer’s. We ultimately decided that my mother would be moved to a nursing home in Boston, near my sister. It was a hard decision; I was very conflicted and felt as though I was abandoning her. After emptying my mother’s apartment, Fumiko and I prepared for our own move to Toronto, which happened early in January 2008.
We quickly settled into our life in Toronto, finding a permanent apartment and involving ourselves in the community. Fumiko was not able to find a job in line with her previous work of caring for the developmentally disabled, so she went into food preparation, working as an assistant sushi chef. In 2012, Fumiko started a three-year full-time art program run by the Toronto School Board. Fortunately, it is very inexpensive and quite thorough, including painting and drawing, print-making, photography, sculpture, and ceramics. She’s totally energized by the work and the community, and she’s well on her way to becoming an artist! For the first time, she feels fortunate to be in Toronto.
For me, I am retired, and I find a lot to amuse me–Toronto is not so different from New York, just smaller and gentler. We live in a small neighborhood in West Toronto where I am an officer of the local residents association and also organize a seniors social group. I lead a women’s reading group, maintain a website for an older women’s advocacy group, keep active in the gay community, and follow local politics and theatre. Toronto has a lot to offer us.
Having lived in Toronto now for five years, we are happy here as permanent residents, notwithstanding the separation from both of our families. On my regular visits to the U.S., I enjoy being a hands-on grandmother. My grandson really is terminally cute and cuddly. In the same month I first visited my grandson, my mother died at age 97, peacefully in her sleep. We held a memorial service for her in New York during my time there. I continue to travel to the U.S. to visit my dentist and find affordable vitamins. So, between a growing family, an old dentist, and cheap vitamins, I may have to keep coming back to the Big Apple from time to time.
Last August, we got married in Massachusetts. As my son notes, we took a very pragmatic attitude about celebrating our marriage. After all, we’ve been together for over 25 years! We simply wanted the added ease and security that a marriage certificate offers. Nonetheless, we were both thrilled to be celebrating our love for one another with family and friends.
Fumiko and I have endured many separations in the 26 years of our relationship. Our connection is very strong, despite differences of language and culture, and even of age. Our lives before meeting one another had taken quite different paths, and we may seem to be an unlikely couple. But we both feel that we are alike in many important ways, and that we really appreciate our differences as well as our similarities. We support and encourage one another through good times and bad. Sometimes there is frustration and anger, but usually there is love and laughter–especially now that we have the security of knowing that we will not have to separate again.
We’re well aware that there are many couples out there who have not yet found their safe haven. Our story is just one example of the unacceptable choices that binational couples like us have been forced to make since DOMA’s introduction in 1996. Couples like us, who have committed no crime but to fall in love with a foreigner, are asked to choose between the person we love and the country we call home. For this reason,we have been involved in the gay and lesbian binational community’s struggle for fair and equal treatment in immigration law since the beginning. It is long past time to end this discrimination against our families. We will not stop telling our story until DOMA is finished and families like ours will no longer be torn apart. Please consider sharing our story and contributing to The DOMA Project. Our fight is not yet over.