Living Into a Fair Future
By Lin McDevitt-Pugh
This is a story about Martha and me. Martha went into exile in 2000 when two important and incompatible facts dominated our lives. We were in love and realized we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. Martha could not stay in the United States because US immigration law prohibited her from sponsoring me as her permanent partner to live there with her.
For the past 9 years Martha and I have actively worked to change this cruel law while she lives in exile. It is time for change. The US immigration law hurts us, hurts Martha’s family, hurts the thousands of families like ours, and it hurts the United States and the freedom it stands for. We think love can change the abject law that keeps Martha in exile. Martha needs to be able to go home and bring me, her wife of 10 years, with her. This is the story of who we are, our love for each other, and never giving up on our dreams.
When Martha and I fell in love we had been friends for 17 years.
Martha and I met in February 1982. I was working in an international media office in Amsterdam with people who promoted clean energy. I had a monthly journal to type but my colleagues were banging out a bi-weekly news release on our one-and-only machine. So I traveled across town to another non-profit, an international policy studies center, to see if I could use one their electric typewriters.
I arrived at the office and a young intern from the USA was typing away; she kindly moved to another chair and watched as I laboured through my pages of copy. When I came back next day to finish the job, I learned that, when she arrived in Amsterdam to start her internship, a co-worker gave her a list of names of people she should try to meet. Coincidentally, my name was at the top.
That is how Martha McDevitt and I met and became fast friends.
When my girlfriend of the time gave birth to our son, Koen, Martha adored him. Martha, a highly competent seamstress, created one little jumpsuit after another for Koen and frequently babysat for us.
In 1984, Martha met an American service woman stationed in the UK who was visiting Amsterdam for R&R where she would not have to hide her sexuality. My family began celebrating holidays with Martha and her partner. In 1990, when Martha’s girlfriend left the military, the couple returned to the USA. Martha knew she would miss us but she wanted to be near her family and wanted to develop a career in her own country. She gave me a modem to put in my computer, so that we could email each other and keep in touch that way. I cried for 6 months. I missed my best buddy.
Fortunately, Martha found that her knowledge of Dutch and her computer skills were very much in demand in Silicon Valley. She was able to secure work that regularly brought her back to the Netherlands and I had work that occasionally took me to the East Coast of the United States; from there, I’d fly to San Francisco to visit her. In this way, we managed to maintain a close and precious friendship.
The friendship was easy and did not have any of the thorns and brambles we experienced with our lovers. My relationship faced constant turbulence despite the best will in the world. When our son was 12, my partner and I decided to disengage. Martha’s relationship, too, had encountered its own turbulence. We both concluded that relationships and turbulence went together, and easy companionship was a thing of friendship.
That changed the week of Martha’s 40th birthday when I visited her in California. By that point, Martha was a senior manager in a Silicon Valley firm and had separated from her girlfriend. It was during that visit that I recognized that what I felt was more than friendship. But with more than 16 years of ease and pleasure as friends on the line, my voice was barely more than a hoarse whisper when I asked her if she wanted to risk more. After what seemed many seconds, I forced my eyes to lift and to look at her. I encountered her smiling face, that beautiful face I had known and enjoyed for so many years. Yes, she wanted that too.
Sigh. This is the stuff of a fairy tale, or shall we say the kind of fairy tale I wish I was told when I was a child. Those kinds of fairy tales hadn’t yet been invented about two women with different nationalities, living on different continents, who fall in love.
And the fairy tale ending still has not been invented. Once we acknowledged we were in love, the confrontations with reality started. To begin with, we had to think about where in the world we would live. Literally. We had three places we could be with family. While I am a Dutch citizen, I am Australian by birth and am privileged to have two living parents in Australia. Martha was living near San Francisco, close to her family, and loving it. And my son Koen was 16 and living in Amsterdam. I certainly did not want to leave him before he was an adult.
For more than a year, from 1999 to 2000, Martha or I flew over the ocean at least once every 6 weeks to spend time together. When we weren’t together we spoke every day on the phone and we had a constant stream of emails. Martha knew it would be very difficult for me to move to the United States as immigration law only recognized heterosexual married couples.
But we had each other and a strong commitment to fairness. We knew that it was our right to be together because we believed – and continue to believe – that we all have a right to equality under the law. We believe that most people will agree with us if they let their hearts speak.
Still, going back and forth between two continents quickly lost its shine. In 2000, Martha found a job in the Netherlands and moved to join me there, 18 years after we first met. In May 2001 we married under the new Dutch law, one month after it was introduced. Having the right to choose to marry, we experienced what it was like to be first class citizens, with all the rights and responsibilities my brother and sister and Martha’s siblings experience in their own country. We don’t feel different, we are not legally different, we are simply people who choose to form a primary relationship with each other and have that relationship recognized by the State. We chose marriage. We wanted to stand up in front of friends and family and request that they support our relationship through thick and thin. We wanted to exercise our right to form that most essential cornerstone of society, the family. We experience the joy of our marriage every day of our lives.
The distinguished photographer Gon Buurman took photos at our wedding for use beyond our own living room wall. We were thinking about the power of the image to support the growing number of voices in the United States saying that two people loving each other should be able to celebrate that in the way that is customary in any society: through marriage. The photos have appeared in magazines and newspapers, on websites and in books. They have even been in art exhibitions, street exhibitions and an exhibition at a retirement home. We have been interviewed for more than 5 books and have talked about the where, what, how and why of our wedding in filmed interviews and in mainstream magazines in the 10 years since.
Martha even spent time on our honeymoon writing about these issues for a gay publication in the USA. We were astounded when the editor wrote back asking if we were sure the marriage was legal. His question was a distressing reminder that in United States it can be hard for even gay people to imagine legal equality.
But our marriage was legal and very real: from the veils and the bouquets to the flower girls, page boy, and the exchange of rings; from the kiss and the champagne on the steps of the City Hall to the celebrations afterward with family and friends from Australia and the USA, from Germany and the UK, and of course from the Netherlands. We were sung to, had poems written about us, we danced the night through and we celebrated life and love.
After several months, though, the reality of our situation began to weigh on Martha. She was living back in the Netherlands, somewhere she had never planned to return. Her dreams of living in her own country, with her family, building her career, were smashed. She had not voluntarily left the USA to be with me; she was exiled. Exiled for love. And because she knew that she was not the only one, in 2002 Martha founded the organization “Love Exiles” to be a community of people who could support each other in exile and who could work together, and with organizations in the USA, to put a halt to the unnecessarily cruel law that made it impossible for people to live in the United States with their foreign-born loved ones and spouses. We set up a board, with Janherman Veenker, a Dutchman whose partner of 20 years, James, was a dean at Rutgers University; Bob Bragar, a New York lawyer who had fallen in love with Rik , a judge in the Dutch law courts; Robby Checkoway, a US-born journalist living in the Netherlands with his UK partner Chris who ran a flourishing internet company; attorney Kirsten Anderson who had fallen in love with Dutch policewoman Jacqueline; and Martha and myself. Our first action was to organize a Thanksgiving dinner at which the Love Exiles living in the Netherlands treated representatives of the local community, including a mayor and a prominent politician responsible for opening marriage to same sex couples, to one of the USA’s finest eating traditions. A lawyer in Los Angeles knew we were organizing the event and he put his client, Tim Heymans in London, in touch with Martha. Love Exiles UK was born. Shortly after, when we were filming a film about love exiles in Germany, Love Exiles Germany was born. Then came Love Exiles Canada and Love Exiles Australia, all of them online communities sharing information on how to cope in a foreign land, how to let their elected representatives know about their situation and how to work toward changes in the law. None of us have come to terms with the fact that the USA would prefer to lose their citizens to exile rather than accepting their partners as residents.
In 2004 Martha joined an 8-day bus ride across the United States organized by marriage equality activists on the West Coast. Their aim was to travel through the heartland educating people along the way about why the freedom to marry matters. Martha kept an audio-log throughout the ride which was later broadcast on Radio Nederland and won a major media award.
A year later, in 2005, Martha was sitting at home in Amsterdam watching developments in California. An exciting majority of the state legislators had voted to open marriage to same sex couples. Would Governor Schwarzenegger veto the bill that would allow couples of the same sex to marry? With our rights hanging in the balance, Martha decided to book a flight home to try to be of help. Within days she was in Redwood City near San Francisco with her mother, preparing a two-day bike ride to the California capital of Sacramento. She bought a new road bike, contacted local marriage and immigration equality activists and set off early one morning to the flash of TV cameras on a journey that brought her to the Governor’s office.
I made a t-shirt for her to wear, with our wedding photo on it. I love the photo that was taken of her wearing it and standing under the portrait of the Governor and his wife. She didn’t get to see the Governor. She left a message. The governor vetoed the bill, saying the courts and not the legislators had to decide.
When Martha was in the States, my job was to inform the press. Alone on the other side of the world, at least I was in an advantageous time zone to get out press releases in support of the efforts of our friends from Out 4Immigration and to publicize the ride. The story of Martha’s ride to Sacramento was one of the top 10 stories of 2005 according to the Dutch magazine, Zij aan Zij.
There are many more stories I could tell about our ongoing efforts to expose the discriminatory effects of US immigration law and the negative impact those laws have on the ability of US companies to employ gay Americans who have foreign partners.
I really admire the efforts of my wife, Martha. Every day, she is thinking and talking and writing about a future in which our families will not face discrimination. She is fearless and at the same time sunny, funny and a treat to be with. One day she will have the right to live in the same country as her mother, her sister and her brothers, the country in which she was born – and to do so without having to leave me, her spouse, behind. We deserve that simple but critical right.