Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Ballad of Linas & Jan

Don’t get me wrong: Stockholm is a lovely place to live. The city is beautiful, it’s hip, it’s incredibly pleasant, and the summers are unsurpassable. But despite its many charms, Sweden isn’t home.

If you had told me ten years ago that I’d be living in Sweden because I had to, I wouldn’t have believed you. Ten years ago, I was graduating from college and moving to Manhattan, the magical place where I’ve wanted to move ever since my childhood in Cleveland, Ohio. I had the world (a.k.a. “New York”) right in front of me, and Sweden barely registered on my mental map. In fact, before I arrived at Stockholm’s airport in February of 2005 with no intention of using the second half of my roundtrip ticket, I had never even seen pictures of the city. The passport control agent flipped through my passport several times before asking, “I see you have a residency visa, but when was the last time you were in Sweden?”
“Never!” I replied cheerily. “I hope I like it!”

So how did I get here? And why am I still here?

Well, like all the best stories, mine involves a sailor. A captain, actually. On a chilly November evening in 2003 in Midtown, I was chatting away with friends at a magazine party when the open bar began charging for drinks. The crowd converged on coat check, eager to move someplace else. Hundreds of people pressed forward uncomfortably, so I hovered near the edge of the crowd, waiting for it to settle down and start thinning out. The next thing I know, some guy is pulling me into the melee, saying in a slight foreign accent, “You have to push forward, or you’ll never leave.” (Words to live by, as it turned out.)

My first thought: ‘Who is this random dude, and why is he hitting on me in coat check, of all places?’
My second thought: ‘Why am I giving this handsome guy such a hard time?’

The rest, as they say, is history. (Or as Elaine Benes might say to Jerry Seinfeld, “Yadda, yadda, yadda...”) His name was Jan, and he used to drive humongous cargo ships all around the world. For the past few years, he had taken a ‘desk job’ in New Jersey for his Scandinavian shipping company. Jan and I soon became inseparable. A year later, his company reorganized and moved his position to Stockholm, his hometown. I had just signed some book contracts – I am incredibly lucky to be part of a fairly mobile profession – so I quit my editing job, and within weeks I was smiling at the face of a bewildered passport agent. You see, at that point I was thinking, ‘Who knows? Maybe Stockholm is even better than New York! We’ll try it – say, for three to five years – and if we don’t like it, we’ll just move back.’ (If you could see me as I type this, you’d see me shaking my head and smiling ruefully.)
Linas and Jan with family members at their wedding in Stockholm, September 2009
Within months, I was pretty sure that Stockholm would never make me feel the way New York does. I was genuinely homesick. And the professional drawbacks to living abroad were more significant than I had supposed. My thoughts started turning to a stateside return, but the reality of my situation gradually became clear.

To explain: Before this point, the whole issue of visas and residency permits just seemed like a question of bureaucratic maneuvering, perhaps because I had known so many people in college and in New York from so many different countries. If they had all done it, why couldn’t Jan? Moreover, moving to Sweden had been a breeze! In fact, based on my relationship with Jan, I could become a Swedish citizen in just three years.
Essentially, our situation boiled down to this: Jan could only move back to the United States if a company sponsored his visa. And there are so, so many complications embedded in that simple statement.

Today I can honestly say that Jan and I are happy in Sweden. He loves his job, we’re close to his family, and we’ve made lifelong friends here. We have a very blessed life, and we know it. But we don’t want to be forced to live here forever. All gay and lesbian people understand what it means not to belong, and on some fundamental level, I just don’t belong here. And if I were given the option of moving back with Jan, I’d do it – in a New York minute.

It’s painful to hear straight, binational couples casually talk about moving back to the U.S.; it’s an enraging reminder of how fairness doesn’t always correspond with law. My Swedish friends are invariably confused: “What do you mean, you can’t move back to the U.S. with Jan?” (And the unstated, implicit follow-up question, “With policies like those, why would you even want to move to such a backward country?”) My family lives back home, in the States, and living with Jan in Sweden means we are isolated from them and so many of my closest friends, unable to share life’s celebrations and challenges with them.

In my head, I understand the incredible odds against immigration equality. Binational gay and lesbian couples comprise a relatively small number of people trying to rally national political attention. But when it’s you whose life is being shaped and limited by heinous legislation, the statistics don’t matter as much as the principles at stake.

So I ‘push forward,’ adding my voice to this campaign to end discrimination and keeping in mind the wise words of Elie Wiesel: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

A native of Ohio, author, illustrator and editor Linas Alsenas has lived in Sweden for almost six years. During that time he has written and illustrated three picture books for Scholastic Press: Mrs. Claus Takes a Vacation (2006), Peanut (2007), and Hello My Name Is Bob (2009). He also wrote Gay America: Struggle for Equality (Amulet, 2008), an ALA Stonewall Honor book. He is hard at work on his next picture book, The Princess of 8th Street, due out in 2012. Linas and his husband, Jan Wilhelmsson, married in Sweden in September 2009, a few months after the country updated its laws to extend marriage to same-sex couples.


  1. I miss you Linas! I hope one day, you can live wherever you both want to. =0) Lela

  2. This has been so inspiring on so many levels. I hope one day governments realise how silly they've been and that gay marriages are as simple as heterosexual ones.