I am an American living in exile because I am in love and because I am gay.
In the fall of 2011, I was faced with an impossible and utterly un-American choice. The combined effect of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, and the Immigration and Nationality Act, under which Americans are only permitted to sponsor foreign-born partners for immigration status if they are married, meant that I did not have standing to sponsor my British partner of then seven years for a green card. Without the legal right to continue to live in the U.S., my partner would have been forced to return to the U.K. As a result, I was made to choose between living my life in the country that I love or moving to England and living it with the person that I love. I chose the latter.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have seized upon this moment to reform our nation’s broken immigration policies. Yet the harsh and deeply discriminatory impact those policies have upon committed same-sex couples is all but absent from their debate. In 1952, Ralph Ellison, in writing on life as an African-American, referred to himself as an invisible man. Although the discrimination long suffered by gays in America does not begin to parallel that inflicted upon a people whose history in our country began with their enslavement, we too struggle to be seen. Only in my case, and in the cases of so many binational same-sex couples forced to flee the U.S. because they were denied the right to live in it with the partners that they love, our invisibility takes on a particularly literal meaning.
My partner and I are the lucky ones. That characterization is hard for me to accept, when my displacement meant leaving the home that I own, separating from family and lifelong friends, and ending a career as an attorney in New York that I worked extremely hard to develop. For 11 long months following my arrival in the U.K., I was unemployed and burned through savings that took me years to amass. In the name of “the defense of marriage,” our lives and livelihoods were taken from us. The painful irony is that the respect for our commitment that we embraced in leaving the U.S. is the very value that makes the defense of marriage worthwhile.
But my partner and I are still the lucky ones. There are many binational same-sex couples who don’t have the opportunity to start a new life together in another country. Long-standing committed relationships have been torn apart. Homes have been lost. People have been thrown into financial ruin. Children have been separated from parents that love them. In short, thousands of lives have been unjustly turned upside down. And for what conceivable benefit?
The time to act is now. Yet too many lawmakers would rather maintain the status quo than raise the visibility of this issue by having it debated. Senators Grassley and McCain have dismissively characterized the ending of immigration practices that discriminate against gays as being unimportant and divisive to the larger conversation on immigration reform. Those “views” are cop-outs. Taking Americans’ lives away from them and forcing them into exile or to needlessly endure grave personal hardships is not unimportant. Correcting such an obvious wrong is not divisive.
In reality, immigration equality for gay people isn’t hard. It’s common sense. It’s about law-abiding foreigners and the Americans who love them. It’s not about providing same-sex couples with a short cut to a Green Card, but rather giving them a shot at getting one. It’s about keeping Americans in America. And it’s about strengthening and uniting families, values that are American to the core.
A growing majority of Americans support marriage equality for same-sex couples. However, the right to marry isn’t necessary to correct the discriminatory impact our immigration laws have upon gay people. Both the White House and a handful of brave lawmakers in the House and Senate have urged that immigration reform should include permitting the permanent partners of U.S. citizens to obtain lawful resident status just like spouses of citizens are able to. Legislation to that effect, known as the Uniting American Families Act, has been introduced in both houses. If it is included as part of an immigration reform package, Americans would be spared living with the paralyzing fear that they might be indefinitely separated from the people they love most. For my partner and me, we would get to come home.
Of course, no one will ever be able to give me back the life I left behind in New York. The wounds inflicted by being forced out of my country are simply too deep for that. But a more inclusive immigration reform package would give me and others in similar positions form and shape, and signal that our time as an invisible class of citizens is finally coming to an end.
I am an American and I deserve to be seen.
BRANDON PERLBERG is a lawyer and consultant who lived, studied, and worked in New York for 15 years. He relocated to London in January 2012.