The Activist: Shirley Tan

There are two types of activists: those who revel in the spotlight, and those who would rather slink away from it when the speech is over. Speaking with Shirley Tan, who was catapulted into national discourse following an early-morning arrest last January by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in her Pacifica, Calif., home, you get the sense that she’d prefer going back to relative anonymity. Tan fled her native Philippines in 1989 after a family member who had murdered Tan’s mother and sister was released from prison. Tan, who feared for her life if she were to return home, was denied asylum in the United States in 1995, but she appealed the ruling. Awaiting a decision, she remained in the country with her partner, Jay Mercado, a naturalized citizen who was unable to sponsor Tan for citizenship as heterosexual spouses do routinely. In the meantime, Tan gave birth to twin boys, and as she raised her family with Mercado—the two women have been together 23 years—she was unaware that her appeal had been denied and that a deportation order was issued in 2002. After her arrest, a group of politicians led by U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein of California successfully lobbied for Tan to remain in the country, where she’s become a very visible face of the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow gay and lesbian Americans to sponsor nonresident partners.

Tan, 44, is visible, but not eagerly so. “I’m certainly not used to this,” she says of the national speaking engagements and congressional hearings she’s since fit into her once-domestic schedule, which included a recent 13th birthday party at a local bowling alley for her sons. “I’m just an ordinary housewife, living my own life, doing everything for my kids and my family. But this is what I have to do now. It’s not only our family, but the 36,000 binational couples who are relying on UAFA.” Tan’s activism has reached the White House, where she recently met with Obama staff members—one of whom had a pastor who was in a binational gay relationship, Tan says.

The press blitz isn’t over yet. Tan expects to speak out in favor of the legislation as it enters the larger debate for comprehensive immigration reform expected to play out in Congress in 2010. And she’s got a starring role in a short documentary on binational gay couples currently in production. How’s that for accidental stardom?