Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Together for 12 Years, Nick and Graham File Fiancé Visa Petition in Exile and take on DOMA

In the wake of the tremendous news from USCIS yesterday that it will accept green card applications for gay couples and put final decisions on those applications in "abeyance" or on hold temporarily, it is important to remember that as we take tiny incremental steps toward full parity for same-sex binational couples in the U.S., thousands of gay and lesbian couples have been forced into exile or separation over the years. The policy announcement yesterday does not bring those couples any closer to a solution that will allow them to return to live together in this country. It is it vital that we not become complacent; we must continue to tell our stories and stay fully engaged in the fight to end the cruel reign of DOMA. DOMA will continue to destroy families and tear apart married gay and lesbian couples until it is repealed or struck down by the courts. We must actively fight for its demise in both the court of public opinion and in Congress if we are finally to bring an end to the long nightmare suffered by tens of thousands of binational gay and lesbian couples.

Nicholas and Graham
Like many other couples who are married or in long-term relationships, Graham and I knew instinctively that we would be together forever from the moment we met on October 24, 1998. Graham was living in Florida on a valid visa and when we met he was in the process of changing visa status so that he could start a business. Unfortunately, that status change was never granted, and before long Graham's right to stay in the U.S. legally had expired. By then it was too late, for Graham and I were deeply in love and living as a couple. Of course we knew that if we were a heterosexual couple, there would be no difficulty. We would have married and after some paperwork and an interview the love of my life would have been given a green card, even if he overstayed his non immigrant visa status. But of course, that is the crux of the problem. Being a bi-national gay couple, we were about to experience 12 long years of cruelty courtesy of discriminatory immigration laws and the Defense of Marriage Act.

We understood how difficult life would be. Graham was unable to work, or obtain health insurance or enjoy any of the other privileges and protections that would be normally within reach for "lawful permanent residents" or "green card" holders in the U.S. Graham could not visit his mom back in the UK either, as he would not have been alowed back in the U.S. for at least 10 years. When his grandfather became terminally ill, his mother was forced to contend with this family crisis by herself, because Graham, her own child, was trapped by US immigration laws. As bad our circumstances were, the alternative was unthinkable. We were inseparable and utterly devoted to one another. We could not imagine a life apart.

As the U.S. citizen partner, I provided for both of us entirely, working tirelessly to build a life we could share, while my own government forced us onto the margins where our relationship didn't exist in the law. I had to give up a job I loved in a bookstore in order to make more money in a job I hated, insulating attics in the Florida heat. I supported Graham financially and emotionally and I was painfully aware that I was unable to sponsor him for legal status---not as my spouse, partner or fiancé----due to laws preventing same sex couples from doing so.

Despite the obvious hardships of being a bi-national same sex couple, we were happier than either of us had ever been in Florida. My family welcomed Graham with open arms and regarded him as my “husband.” Graham became a “son-in law” to my parents, brother to my older sister and older brother and an uncle to my nephews and neices.

Initially, on a tight budget, we lived with a roommate friend; it meant that Graham and I had to share a small single bed in a tiny room. It wasn’t much, but it was ours and it was bliss. Working hard and saving, I purchased our first home for us within a year of being together.

In February 2000 we had a commitment ceremony in Orlando. We knew it wasn’t a legal ceremony, but we had a Minister who was happy to perform the ceremony and lots of friends and family (my family in Orlando and Graham's Mom from England) were there to share our special day with us. We had two best men and six bridesmaids, one of which was my sister. It was absolutely wonderful and an event we will both cherish for the rest of our lives.

By 2003, it was time to take a step up the property ladder. We sold our house and bought what was for us our “dream” Florida home. The construction industry was still in a boom so I was making decent money. At the same time, as we reached our mid 30s we became increasingly aware that our future was uncertain. If I were to lose my job through injury or an economic downturn we would have lost our home. If I were to lose my life, Graham would have been left destitute and alone in a country refusing to acknowledge his relationship to me.

For almost seven years we lead a truly wonderful life, yet the fear of being separated never completely left our minds. We were always wary of being discovered, perhaps, in retrospect overly so. We were so afraid Graham would be found out that Graham even avoided medical treatment at times when he desperately needed it because he was too afraid to make his existence known to anyone. We were happy in our own little world, surrounded by family and close friends. Unfortunately all that changed in 2001 following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC.

Due to our location near to Walt Disney World, we couldn’t go anywhere without running into heightened security; police and security guards almost always asked for identification. Graham was so terrified that he became a recluse. So afraid was Graham that a routine security check would make his presence known to the immigration authorities that at one point he actually stayed inside my home for six months without ever leaving. Graham's health suffered and ultimately he had no choice but to see a doctor. He was diagnosed with agoraphobia and social anxiety disorder, which were attributed to the years of insurmountable stress and fear of living in hiding that climaxed during 2001.

We endured this life for a further three years until we could take the pressure no longer.

In 2004 we made the agonizing decision to leave the United States. There were many ways in which this was a hard choice, but what made it especially cruel was the fact that leaving meant Graham would be barred for 10 years upon departure from the U.S. as a penalty for overstaying his original visa (and, of course, Graham would not be eligible for a "waiver" as the spouse of a U.S. citizen) . It was like we were consigning ourselves to imprisonment abroad. In the U.K., where Graham is from, the government had instituted provisions recognizing same sex couples for the purpose of immigration. So we knew that was our only choice. When I say choice, I don't mean free choice. We were forcibly exiled there, it was the only chance we had to live as free, equal and dignified people with all the rights of any person residing in the U.K. We had to put an end to the hiding and the fear.

When I shared the news of our decision, my family in Florida was devastated. My mother had already lost two of her sons to muscular dystrophy and a daughter in an horrific motorcycle accident, and now, she felt like she was losing yet another child. My brother and sister were losing another sibling, and all for the simple fact that there is no recognition of same sex couples under U.S. immigration law. For Graham, it was heartbreaking to see how this decision affected both me and my family. I was being forced to move to a country that I had never even visited. I was leaving behind all we had ever known, and most cruelly, I was leaving behind my family.

We were forced to sell our home to pay for legal costs and moving expenses. All that we had built and loved came to an end. Our American Dream was over.

We left the United States in January 2005. I entered the UK on an Unmarried Partners Visa. In February 2006, we became “civil partners” which awarded us the privilege of becoming one another's next of kin under UK and European law.

Graham with Nicholas' mother
But life in the UK has not been easy. We have struggled to make a life for ourselves here and continue to do so. We miss our old lives so terribly. I miss my homeland and my family. I have seen my Mother perhaps three or four times in the last six years when she was able to visit us. Graham is not allowed to visit the US and financial restraints make it virtually impossible for me to visit. Leaving America was the hardest thing we have ever had to do. Part of our lives died the day we left and the longing to return burns as fiercely now as it did then.

We have been together for twelve years now and we have only been apart once in all that time when I returned to Florida for a visit to see my family after my stepfather was diagnosed with cancer. Understandably, my Mother was unable to leave her husband so she paid for my flight to return home. We had a huge family reunion, but the fact that I had to do this without my life partner by my side made it a bitter sweet affair. Everyone kept asking, “Where's Graham?” No one could believe that in this day and age we still have such archaic laws and notions about homosexuality. The short time I was away was almost unbearable for both of us, so reliant had we become on each other over the years. We spoke to each other twice a day on Skype, and we even had the webcam set up during the reunion so Graham could feel a part of it. Graham was happy for me that I was spending time with my family, but at the same time, he was heartbroken that U.S. law prevented him from returning to the United States to see the family of which he had become an integral part and which loved him so much.

My mom is 75 and my stepfather is 81. My stepfather had his colon removed due to cancer, which has now spread to his lungs and his brain. He is undergoing radiation therapy. A recent stroke has left the left side of his body practically immobile. My stepfather raised me from boyhood. He is the man whom I regard as a father. Now he is extremely ill and I cannot be there for him or to comfort and support my mother who desperately needs me there, because current US law prohibits this from happening. My mother underwent open heart surgery 10 years ago, and although she has recovered from the surgery, the strain of caring for her husband is putting her under immense stress, both physically and mentally. She desperately needs me back home. No mother should be put through such anguish and no son should feel so helpless to do anything to help. It’s such a heart wrenching position to be in. Unless you are going through something like this, you can't begin to imagine how traumatic this is for someone, knowing that you cannot be there to help and support your own mother, or to be with your stepfather in his fight for survival that few, if any, manage to win.

We have always longed to return to America, but now, more than ever, we really need to be there.  The only thing that prevents us from returning to our family is the Defense of Marriage Act. If this law were not in place, I would be able to marry and sponsor Graham, like millions of other Americans before me who are married to foreign nationals.

Graham and I were 27 when we met. This year, we turn 40. We are as close now as we have ever been. And are utterly devoted to one another. I cannot imagine life without him. He is my everything. He is my world. Yet he knows that were it not for him, I would be back in America, caring for the people I love. I left my home, my family and my country so that we could live without fear of being torn apart, but that life changing decision has come with a hefty price.

To be so utterly compatible with someone and to be so utterly in love, but told you cannot be together because you are the same gender is perhaps the cruelest thing anyone can do to a couple who want nothing more than to live their lives together, surrounded by their family in a country they call home.  We have joined this fight by filing a fiancé visa petition and we will work to urge an end to discrimination against all gay and lesbian binational couples who live in fear of separation or isolated in exile because of the Defense of Marriage Act.


  1. Couldn't Graham visit the USA legally, marry his partner in the appropriate state and then adjust his legal status by applying for a green card now?

  2. that is really sad, i hope DOMA gets repealed for your sake, mine and all the other same sex binational couples.

  3. The first comment shows how little people know about what bi-national couples go through. Until same sex marriage is a federal law we have no way of bringing our partners here to live with us. I wish the media and talk shows would publicize what this wonderful government of ours is doing to me and countless others who just want to be together with the people they love. I think if most Americans realized that this is happening they would demand change. I am living in the Philippines with my partner waiting for this change.

  4. Thank you michael hansen, you are correct about the media needing to publicize because the misunderstanding is worldwide. I am living in South Africa, the only country to recognize and protect same sex relationships in the country’s constitution, with my same sex partner. We decided to more here when his US study visa expired. Of course we had not choice really.
    Our friends and family here assume that the USA recognizes same sex relationships since they hear about same sex unions and marriages in some US states. They find it unbelievable when I explain the reality to them. The reality that most US states and the Federal government do not recognize our relationship.
    Recently in a FB chat with my cousin in Illinois, during the chat she became aware of the reason I moved to South Africa 5 years ago. Even she didn’t understand and her brother is an executive for the ACLU.
    There are a great number of religious radicals and bigots that will never change their position, but I agree that many Americans do not realize the inequality of the DOMA. I agree that if they were aware we would have many more allies.