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Love and Exile

Love and Exile


For almost two decades, I have been engaged in a labor of love. That may sound odd coming from a gay rights activist who toils away in the obscure world of immigration law. But I assure you, it's all about love.

I came to the United States in 1989 from Canada at the age of 22--excited about law school, though not sure what I would do with my degree. At the border I presented my paperwork to the immigration officers. Without much fuss I was permitted to enter the country as a foreign student. Little did I know that I was technically "inadmissible" to the United States because I was gay. That was the law of the land until Congress passed the 1990 Immigration Act, which removed homosexuality as one of the health-based grounds for denying entry into the U.S. Looking back, I certainly didn't identify as an outlaw. And yet, as a gay immigrant and, later, as half of a binational couple, I soon found myself fighting against a legal system that excluded me on multiple fronts.

(LATEST: Gay Couple Spared Deportation)

After law school I met and fell in love with a talented fashion design student in New York. When he graduated from school, there was cause for celebration. My graduation, on the other hand, was a more complicated milestone. Finishing school meant owning up to the reality that my student visa would soon expire--and so too would our relationship if I couldn't find a way to stay in the country. I set out to get advice from an immigration lawyer who had experience working with lesbian and gay couples. In the process I found a job and a work visa. I also found a mentor and friend with the same passion I had for LGBT immigration issues. Together we built our practice and founded the nonprofit organization now known as Immigration Equality. My boyfriend and I didn't last (though we are still friends), but I am grateful to him. Because of that first love, I found my life's work.

Every day, I am inspired by the intense love and devotion of couples who are committed to building a life together despite the often insurmountable odds. With extraordinary determination, binational couples have organized and found ways to share their poignant stories. Recently I have been working with married binational couples who are taking on the Defense of Marriage Act. The law, passed in 1996, prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages for any purpose, including immigration. For many of my clients, this means that their legal spouses are, in the eyes of the U.S. government, strangers who can be deported, regardless of how many years these couples have been committed or whether these are raising children together. Imagine if the government could do that with straight couples? The cruelty of this law is one of the worst injustices our government still perpetrates on American citizens, solely for being lesbian or gay.

Yet, as the plight of binational couples living in the U.S. has made the long journey to center stage, I am concerned that we have mostly failed to notice its flip side: the phenomenon of lesbian and gay Americans who have been forced to leave this country so that they can stay with those whom they love. Living in what blogger Andrew Sullivan has aptly called a "spousal diaspora," they are the forgotten victims of DOMA and of immigration laws that ignore same-sex couples. Flung to the far corners of the globe, they are exiled from our collective consciousness even as we fight discrimination that tears apart U.S.-based lesbian and gay binational couples every day.

It's difficult to estimate the number of couples concerned. But with 20 countries now providing for the immigration of same-sex partners, we can be certain that thousands of Americans have moved to countries like Canada that recognize their citizens' basic human right to be with their loved ones. These are, to some extent, the lucky couples. Other binational couples end up as refugees because neither the U.S. nor the foreign partner's country recognizes their relationships. Some travel the world until they can find a country that will take them in. This forced expatriation of lesbian and gay Americans is among the most absurd consequences of the exclusion of same-sex couples from our immigration system. One such couple, like countless others before them, recently gave up and decided to move to Europe.

When I first met Robert and Kent, they had just made a big decision: They wanted to marry in the country they called home. But they couldn't legally marry in Florida, where they lived, so this plan necessitated travel. For Robert, a British citizen in the United States without legal status, domestic air travel was risky. They decided that traveling to Washington, D.C., where same-sex marriage had recently become legal, was the best option. I met them there and watched as their marriage ceremony took place on a grassy lawn near the U.S. Capitol. It was close enough that we could make out the inscription on the Supreme Court across the street that reads "Equal Justice Under the Law."

Thirty years ago, in 1981, Robert, who was living in London at the time, decided to vacation in Key West. There he met Kent, an American who was visiting from Miami. By the end of that trip, both men knew they wanted to be together. Soon after, Kent traveled to England to visit Robert and ended up staying for six years. Unable to get legal status for Kent in the United Kingdom, they moved to Utah, where Kent's large Mormon family lived. Robert was able to obtain a business visa, but relying on bad legal advice, he did not pursue a green card when it expired. Robert and Kent stayed in the United States for the next 24 years despite the constant fear that Robert would be discovered and deported. They felt grateful that they were together, but they were also trapped. Robert couldn't leave the U.S.--not even to visit his family. If he did so, he likely would never be able to return.

Robert and Kent moved on from Utah to California and then to Florida, where Robert continued to manage various businesses. It helped that he had a Social Security number and a driver's license, which were accessible in those days even to individuals who had overstayed their visas. Year after year, they hoped for passage of some kind of immigration reform.

By 2010, Robert realized that he would not be able to stay in the United States much longer. A family member in the U.K. had taken ill, and he needed to be there. Also, they were getting older. Kent was 54 and Robert was 67; they simply could not see themselves spending their old age together with the constant fear of deportation in a country where Robert had no valid identity document, no driver's license, and no safety net.

But leaving the U.S. was not a decision to be taken lightly. Robert and Kent had built a wonderful life for themselves in Florida, with a flourishing business and many close friends. Because Robert had been unlawfully present in the U.S. for more than one year, he was subject to an automatic 10-year bar on returning if he left. Knowing that Robert might never be able to return, he and Kent reluctantly prepared to say goodbye to their life in the United States. In early 2011 the last of their possessions was boxed and shipped to Europe. They tried to remain optimistic even as they felt they were being shoved out the door, and they left for good at the end of March. Kent became another gay American exiled by his own government.

I stood next to Robert and Kent as they said their vows last November. The late afternoon sun cast long shadows on the grass. The Capitol was eerily quiet. I felt goose bumps on my arms as I heard the words "I now pronounce you married." I saw the tears well up as they held each other's hands. We were standing between Congress and the Supreme Court. On one side was the legislature that passed DOMA, the very law that was now forcing this legally married couple to uproot themselves and disappear into the spousal diaspora. On the other side were the judges who might one day soon strike down that law as unconstitutional and end discrimination against married lesbian and gay binational couples. Unfortunately for Robert and Kent, that day did not come soon enough.

The fight for immigration rights for same-sex couples is not, as some will argue, about creating new or special rights. In fact, it's quite simply about love. I may sound like a romantic, but I believe DOMA and discriminatory immigration laws will not stand long against the power of love. And when those laws fall and America can finally welcome back its exiles, then love truly will have won.
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