VIDEO: How America Looks at Me – A Gay Immigrant’s Perspective
I’ve lived in the United States for almost fifteen years, with no real sense of permanence. That may seem like a long time to not be able to plan more than two or three years in advance, but it makes sense when you consider that I’ve been in this country on a series of non-immigrant visas, each visa having a specific purpose for me to be here. My first visa granted me four years for to complete my undergraduate degree, after which I requested another two years for my first graduate degree. That led to a job in my chosen field of book publishing, along with the H-1B visa permitting me to live and work here, which was renewed to the maximum six years. Eventually, having gained a foothold in one end of the book business, I decided to switch to the other end, returning to school to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. I never needed to plan beyond a few years. I had no choice: my non-immigrant visa has always been tied to a specific short-term goal or purpose.
Of course, all that changed when I met my boyfriend, Joe, who eventually became my husband, Joe, and who, as an American, was more firmly attached to the idea of having permanent residence in this country. From the moment we said, “I do,” our lives entered a legal quagmire. Like so many other gay and lesbian couples we were legally married in our home state (Connecticut) and enjoyed the rights and benefits of marriage under the laws of our state, while having our marriage completely unrecognized by the federal government because the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) for all purposes under federal law, including Joe’s right to sponsor me, as his spouse, for permanent residence in the U.S.
DOMA hangs a cloud of uncertainty over our lives, making it almost impossible for us to plan things that would be a matter of course for opposite sex couples, such as whether we should renovate our bathroom this year, or if it makes sense to finally get that puppy we’ve wanted for so long. Mundane? Perhaps. But when you are denied the right to make the simplest decisions, that itself becomes a reminder of how powerless we are to solve the more important problems, like how we are going to stay together in this country.
I suspect that most people are well aware by now of DOMA and its discriminatory treatment of married gay couples. It’s all over the news. The President said publicly that the law, signed in 1996 by President Clinton, is unconstitutional. Congressmen (mostly Democrats) have been slowly coming around to the idea that the federal government has no interest in restricting recognition of existing legal marriages to heterosexual couples. And now, the nine men and women of the Supreme Court are getting ready to determine the fates of hundreds of thousands of LGBT couples and their families across the country, for now and for generations to come.
Wonderful. The national spotlight focused on this issue has far-reaching implications, impacting more than just the LGBT couples directly affected. It helps to sensitize our families and friends to our struggle. Personal stories like ours help to change people’s minds. Just ask Republican Senator Rob Portman. This is why the work being done by The DOMA Project is literally life-changing.
But the reality of DOMA and its insidious discrimination was a concern for me and Joe long before the media picked up on it. When you’re in a bi-national same-sex relationship, the mere proposal of getting married and making a legal lifelong commitment to each other requires a level of constitutional scholarship that our heterosexual counterparts never even have to consider. Joe and I have probably done enough collective research into immigration law, marriage equality around the world, and Constitutional law as it pertains to marriage, to make a decent showing on the LSATs. (Full disclosure, Joe secretly hopes to be a Supreme Court Justice, one day. Hey, he couldn’t be any worse than Clarence Thomas, am I right?) And yet we still don’t know enough to feel comfortable navigating this maze without professional legal help, which is why we have Lavi Soloway. (He said that we make a really cute couple, and we respect his legal opinion.)
I guess it’s a good thing we live in the Constitution State. We can rattle off names and dates whenever our straight friends ask us about where same-sex marriage is legal. (Yes, we often explain, Connecticut was the second marriage equality state, after Massachusetts—they just didn’t make a big deal out of it, like New York or Rhode Island.) But my favorite question is whenever we explain our situation to someone, and they ask me, “Well, why don’t you just become a citizen? Wouldn’t that be easier?”
It would be theoretically easier, of course, but it’s nowhere near being easy. First, there’s the whole business of getting permanent residence (see the whole DOMA problem, above). But there’s also the inherent headache of an immigration bureaucracy that creates hoops and hurdles for immigrants trying to work within the system. The Senate recently seemed poised to make a historic bi-partisan effort to take steps towards improving this system. But, tragically for thousands of bi-national LGBT couples, normally pro-LGBT Senate Democrats decided at the last minute to cave to Republican pressure to remove an amendment to the bill that would allow gay Americans, like Joe, to sponsor their foreign-born spouses, like me, for permanent residence.
This is what we’re up against. A political system in which one party prefers to pretend we don’t exist (not even in log cabins), and the other refuses to stand up for what they know is right. So much for hope and change.
What if real immigration reform could pass Congress without being bruised and battered by partisan politics? What if politicians and media personalities did not engage in fear-mongering at the expense of the LGBT community?
I don’t have the answers to those questions. I prefer to stick to the simpler ones. What if you meet someone, fall in love, and want to take the next step in making a legally recognized lifelong commitment to each other? For me and Joe, the decision to get married was the easiest part of this journey. We knew we loved each other. We knew we wanted to be together, and to be recognized as spouses, for the rest of our lives.
And then one day, we asked, “What are we waiting for?” It was a very simple ceremony, just the two of us and the Justice of the Peace on the dock over the lake behind our home. But that was all we needed. Parties and big celebrations are fun, but we both knew that nothing mattered more than our love. Also, contrary to stereotypes, neither of us really cared to do all that expensive planning. I think my mom put it best when we called her in Trinidad afterward to tell her the news: “As long as you two make each other happy, there is nothing that anybody else thinks that matters.”
Joe’s mom wholeheartedly agreed, although she noted that she only lives thirty minutes away, and would have loved to be there with us in person.
We do make each other happy, and have from the very beginning. We don’t have the most fairy-tale story of how we met (on the internet, like so many other couples in the modern age), but I have to say it’s been a fairy-tale ride ever since. Yes, there were a couple close calls with Immigration. Once when my old passport was about to expire, and it looked like the Trinidad and Tobago Consulate would not be able grant me a new one in time, we feared that I might have to leave the country for an indeterminate period. Another time, due to a mistake an immigration officer made on my I-94, I had to leave the country on very short notice, flying to Jamaica for the day to avoid a potential overstay with my visa. But we’ve seen enough stories on The DOMA Project to know that we’ve been very lucky in many ways. I still have legal status as an immigrant. The future may be uncertain, but for now at least, unlike too many other bi-national couples, Joe and I are able to be together.
But uncertainty is nothing new for me. It’s been my life as an immigrant for over a decade. And now Joe and I face uncertainty as we wait for nine members of the Supreme Court to make a ruling on DOMA. We’re hopeful for the best outcome, and mindful as to what is at stake for so many. But we’re also prepared for anything. Because, really, would be the worst outcome? That we might eventually be forced to leave the U.S. in order to be together? That would suck. This is Joe’s home, and I’ve spent my entire adult life here. But we know that whatever we do, wherever we go, we’ll be together. We made a commitment to love each other for life, and there’s nothing the Supreme Court can do or say to change that. And in an environment full of flux and uncertainty, that’s the only kind of permanence that really matters.
(Yes, that exchange in the video epilogue actually happened. And, yes, he really did look like Michael Phelps. No, I didn’t take any pictures.)