Thursday, December 2, 2010

An American Grandmother and Her Wife, In Exile

Sally and I met in 2003 on an Internet message board at a time when we were both winding down marriages. I was in the process of a divorce after being married for 24 years and, defined for so long as wife and mother, I didn’t know what I was going to do with the rest of my life. One of my best friends told me to plan on being alone for the rest of my life as men for women my age were in short supply.

I grew up in a family that was extremely bigoted and homophobic. There were openly gay men on both sides of my family, and they were constantly the object of jokes and obscene comments. I had always had very strong attachments to my female friends and never had those same attachments to men I dated. I didn’t know what that meant though. I had never had any lesbian role models growing up, and assumed that all females fantasized about having sex with other females. I was quite naïve!

I responded to a post on the message board titled "Am I Gay?" because I had begun finally acknowledging to myself that I might be gay, a prospect that was terrifying to me. I wanted to see what advice others had to offer. One day Sally privately messaged me on the board that she was involved with a woman and would be happy to talk to me about my feelings if I ever wanted to talk.  We spent months communicating via private messages on the board, then e-mail, and ultimately through instant messages.  As odd as it may sound, we both realized that we were falling in love and finally after 8 months of talking to each other online and on the phone, I traveled to England to meet her in person.  When we did meet in person, it was as if we had known each other all of our lives.  We continued to travel back and forth to see each other.  I would go to England one month and Sally would travel to the US the next month.  We alternated who traveled to try and cut down on the immigration problems.

In July 2004, with our divorces finalized, we traveled to Canada, Sally from England and me from the US, and married.  It was absurd and tortuous to separate after honeymooning in Mexico, but as a lesbian couple we had no choice. Borders and passports trumped our love for each other. With heavy hearts, Sally returned to England and I returned to the US. It would be weeks before we were able to be together again.

We spent the next year and a bit traveling back and forth, trying to spend as much time together as possible.   Some trips were only for one night.  I moved to New Jersey to make the trips back and forth a bit cheaper and a bit shorter. I would fly out on Friday night after work, arrive in Manchester on Saturday morning, and fly back to the States on Sunday so that I could go back to work on Monday morning.  It was horrendous, exhausting and extremely expensive.  We were spending about $1,000 each month on travel expenses. Our phone bills exceeded $2,000 each month, until I figured that with VoIP and could get a virtual England number so that Sally and I could call each other for almost nothing. The financial burden was staggering.

We searched relentlessly for every option that would permit Sally to move to the US or allow me to move to the UK.  As so many thousands of binational gay couples before us we learned the cold hard truth: there was no way for Sally to move to the US without me sponsoring her and that was impossible because the US did not recognize our legal marriage.  The UK Civil Partnership Act was not effective at the time, and the only option available to me to move to the UK was to apply for a visa under the UK Highly Skilled Migrant Programme.  I met with an immigration lawyer in Liverpool who filed the application for me in August 2004, but it was denied on our first try because the attorney hadn't supplied all the necessary information.

In April 2005 Sally traveled to the States for a 90 day visit.  When she arrived in the States, she was pulled aside at immigration for additional questioning because she had been to the States so often.  She was intimidated by the immigration officers and, after a more than an hour-long interrogation, she was finally told that they would allow her in to visit but that she wouldn't be allowed back to the US for a year.  We were elated to be together for more than a few days at a time, but heartbroken at what the future held for us.   I was beginning to get questioned at immigration control when I came to England and even when I arrived back in the States. To be questioned on both ends, as though we were common criminals, when all we wanted to do is build a life together... it was almost too much to bear. It was certainly almost impossible to explain to others what we were enduring.  We are truly each other's soul mate and we couldn't bear the thought of being apart for months at a time. So we kept trying.

While Sally was in the States, she took the UK visa denial letter and put together a new application with all of the supporting information that had been left out the first time around.  This time we were pleasantly surprised. On Sally’s birthday in July 2005 we received the wonderful news that my visa to the UK had been approved. Two months later, I moved to the UK.

It has taken me years to rebuild my career here in the UK. Even in a booming economy at the time, it took months for me to find a job with no UK experience. However, I finally did get a job, and have worked for the past 5 years to get my career and income back to the level it was in the US.

I pay taxes to the UK government, but still have to file a tax return for the US government. I pay a higher tax rate here in the UK than I would earning the same income in the US, which means that I don’t have to pay additional taxes to the US on my income. However, I would be quite disappointed if I had to pay additional taxes to the US as I don’t get to file as a married US citizen. And I don’t get the same rights, particularly with regards to immigration. Needless to say, if I had married a British man rather than a British woman, my marriage would be recognized and not only would I be able to file my taxes as a married person, I would have the right to sponsor my spouse for immigration. Instead, I have been forced into exile.

Our Canadian marriage was automatically recognized here in England as of December 5, 2005 under the UK Civil Partnership Act. We enjoy the same rights and responsibilities of a heterosexual married couple in the US. The mundane becomes so comforting when you are treated equally and with dignity. When we have to fill out paperwork – mortgage applications, next of kin information at hospital and doctor appointments – there is a matter of fact acceptance of our same sex relationship. If I hadn’t been able to come here on my own visa, once the Civil Partnership Act was in effect, Sally could have sponsored me for immigration purposes into the UK. People here refer to same sex couples just as they would heterosexual couples – we are wives and gay men are referred to as each other’s husbands. It is hard to express in words what it is like to live in a world where being equal is simply the everyday norm.

I have two grown daughters, a 26-year old who works with hearing impaired children in a Texas school, and a married 28-year old who lives near Houston, where she works as a customer services rep for an IT company. My older daughter gave birth to my first grandchild, an amazing little boy in January 2009.  She is pregnant again. My second grandson is expected to arrive on my birthday in March 2011.

Unfortunately, because of what happened to Sally at immigration before, she is terrified of going into the US, making every trip extremely stressful. We miss our American family, but it is very expensive for us to visit as often as we want. We are rarely able to go back to the US, and I have now not seen my daughters in 15 months. By the time I can visit again, it will have been 19 months. Every mother and grandmother reading this will understand what that forced separation from my daughters and my grandson has meant for me. I have only seen my grandson twice in his life. I am thankful for free video chat options we have and as a result, he does know who I am, although he occasionally confuses me with his hero, Sponge Bob Square Pants! While I am exiled from my family, Sally is also deprived of the opportunity to spend these years getting to know my daughters. She is their stepmother and yet we have had so little time with them.

My mother is deceased.  My father had a lung transplant in May 2004 and was on the mend, but he chose to end his life earlier this year. Because of the problems we have going in and out of the US, I could not to go back for a memorial service that was held for him. Apart from my wife my only family are my daughters, son-in-law, and my grandchild. It is painful for me to be forced to live on the other side of the world from them, but it would be unbearable to be separated from Sally. I should not have to make that choice.

What stands in the way of my family’s happiness is a very simple law called, in mock seriousness, “The Defense of Marriage Act.” What this law does is that it creates two classes of marriages. One group of married couples (heterosexuals) have all the full rights, benefits and protections of federal law. The other group, legally married gay and lesbian couples, have nothing. According to this law, they are not husbands and wives, but legal strangers to one another. No matter the depth of our love, no matter the literal distance we have traveled to make a life together, no matter how supportive and compassionate our friends and family are, we are treated as strangers by the U.S. government. Another American family is torn apart by DOMA. A mother is kept from holding her daughter's hand as she gives birth. A grandmother is kept from seeing her grandson take his first steps. Members of Congress who passed this law in 1996 did so before same-sex couples could even marry. When you think about it, that is some determined effort to discriminate and cause havoc. Discriminating against Sally and me, causing so much pain to our families, can be undone. Repeal the Defense of Marriage Act now, and we can live together in the United States. Ironic, perhaps, that the main proponents of DOMA are those anti-gay legislators who are the first to say that government must be small and not intrude in our lives. And yet look at the terrible mess they have made of our lives, government making choices for us that we should have every right to make for ourselves.

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