The phone calls started as soon as word got out that the Vermont legislature had passed a bill recognizing the right of same-sex couples to get married. Sissi Loftin’s friends and neighbors thought she would be thrilled to be able to marry Janet, her partner of 25 years. They have been apart since 2006, when Janet—a British citizen—lost her work visa and was forced to return to England.
“Unfortunately,” says Loftin, “while we’re very pleased that lesbians and gays can marry in Vermont now, we can’t really celebrate, because it won’t help our situation. The state already recognizes our relationship—we got a civil union in 2000. Marriage won’t make any difference to us now because it doesn’t affect immigration rights.”
“I was seriously considering going back to Zimbabwe,” says the same-sex spouse of one American, “because it had become clear that there were no options for me in the United States.”
State-level legalization of same-sex marriage has gay and lesbian couples celebrating from the Green Mountains to the Corn Belt. But with the gay-marriage movement reaching a fever pitch—in addition to Iowa and Vermont, New York Governor David Paterson announced he’ll introduce a same-sex marriage bill this week—these couples are quickly learning that legalizing gay marriage at the state level, while keeping it illegal at the federal level, means some rights, like the right to collect a deceased spouse’s Social Security benefits, get lost in the mix.
For most gay couples, missing out on such federal rights is a small setback in a much larger victory. But for binational couples like Sissi and Janet, it doesn’t solve the single biggest problem they face: the need for a green card. The right that matters most to them—the right to sponsor a spouse for immigration benefits—happens at the federal level.
According to Victoria Neilson, legal director at Immigration Equality, there are approximately 36,000 same-sex binational couples living in the United States. The actual number of people affected, however, is certainly higher, because that figure, based on data from the 2000 Census, does not include the thousands of Americans who have chosen to leave the U.S. in search of a country that will recognize their relationship.
“What Immigration Equality is fighting for,” says Neilson, “is to get the Uniting American Families Act passed by Congress.” The bill, sponsored by Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) “would allow American citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their long-term partners for green cards.”
Passing this act would not amount to federal recognition of same-sex marriage. “What the UAFA does,” explains Neilson, “is that if you can prove that you are in a bona fide, intimate relationship that’s intended to be a life-long commitment, then you can sponsor your partner for immigration benefits. You would have to meet the same standards as opposite-sex couples.”
On the board of Immigration Equality is another Vermonter, Gordon Stewart. He has lobbied for UAFA since he moved to London four years ago to be with his Brazilian partner, Marcos. They were living together in New York when, in 2003, Marcos left the country for what they thought would be a routine renewal of his student visa. But the renewal was rejected, and Marcos has not been able to come back.
After a year and a half of commuting to Brazil every other weekend, Gordon was able to get his employer, Pfizer, to transfer him to the United Kingdom. There, Marcos was recognized as his civil partner and granted a visa and work permit.
“It’s wonderful,” says Gordon referring to the U.K.’s hospitality, “but we’re living in a country that is a seven-hour flight from my family and a 12-hour flight from his family. And given that every year I have to pay taxes in the U.S., as any expatriate has to do, I feel that I’m being taxed without rights and it really makes me very angry.”
Gordon’s family, like Sissi Loftin’s friends, thought Vermont’s legalizing same-sex marriage would mean the end of his immigration problems. “My 17-year-old niece in Vermont was ecstatic when she heard the news,” he says. “She immediately called me, and it was very sad for me to have to explain to her that this doesn’t change our situation. She’s graduating this year and we won’t be able to be there because Marcos is not even allowed in as a tourist. It’s devastating.”
Barbara Olney of California knows the emotional toll this takes on the family left on this side of the pond. Her son, Richard, moved to London in 2005 in order to be with his partner. Olney hates the fact that her son now lives 7,000 miles away. “I bawled my eyes out when he said he was moving to England,” she recalls. “I miss him terribly. And we love [Richard’s partner] Trevor, too. I wish both my boys would come back. But I understand why he had to leave. I would do the same for my husband.”
Richard, who was in his mid-forties when he left for England, talks about the challenges posed by becoming an expatriate later in life. “If I can be quite blunt,” he said in an interview from London, “there were many times when I was moving when I said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ You know, I really had to do some soul searching, because I had a fantastic career, I was making really good money, I had a beautiful home, I had my motorcycle, I had my dogs, a good circle of friends, and I was giving all of that that up. Not only that, but I had to sell just about everything I owned. All to be with the person that I absolutely fell in love with.”
According to Richard, “If the immigration laws changed this afternoon, we would be on a plane tomorrow morning. We do not like living in the United Kingdom at all. We are very well accepted here, but we definitely, definitely want to move back. We talk about it at least once a week. We talk about where in the States we would want to live.”
Things become even more complicated when the foreign partner has been living in the country illegally. Thom Vernon and Vajdon Sohaili met at a birthday party in Los Angeles nine years ago. Vajdon, a Zimbabwean national, had been living in California since 1991, when he arrived as a student. By the time he met Thom, his visa had expired and he was in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant. “I was seriously considering going back to Zimbabwe,” says Vajdon, “because it had become clear that there were no options for me in the United States. But then I met him and that changed the game because we fell in love. I came out to him about my situation and from the very beginning it was very clear that he wasn’t going to give up on us, that we were in it together. So we started trying to figure out how to get to a safe place.”
After years trying to find a country where they could both go, they landed in Canada in 2005 and got married there a year later. In spite of this recognition of their relationship, starting a new life has not been easy. “It has cost thousands and thousands of dollars,” says Thom, “and I can’t even begin to tell you the emotional stress and strain that this journey has put us through.”
After spending most of his adult life in the U.S., Vajdon feels a genuine attachment to this country. “For me,” he adds, “the value of home is something that can’t be replaced. I just can’t replace that feeling of home. California was my home. Toronto, unfortunately, is just where I live now. It doesn’t feel like home.” Thom, however, sees things differently. “After this journey that we’ve been through,” he says, “home is where Vajdon is. Of course California is home, in a sense, but it’s no longer hooked to geography for me. You know, I have two master’s degrees, and a lot to offer, but at this point, the U.S. needs to do a bit of a better job saying they want me.”
Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, points out that “federal law discriminates against same-sex couples and it forces gay Americans to choose between the love of their life and their country.” And he believes that the U.S. government is causing a brain drain by pushing out highly educated citizens such as Thom. Martha McDevitt-Pugh, founder of Love Exiles agrees. She lives in Amsterdam with her wife, Lin. “It’s ridiculous!” she exclaims. “My wife has an MBA, she’s a manager at a cultural-heritage organization. She would definitely be a contribution to the United States, but even that doesn’t get taken into consideration.”
According to Wolfson, reforming federal law to solve this problem “would not be a difficult thing to do.” He points out that “many of the leading businesses in this country have partnership programs that, even apart from marriage, respect committed partners. And many of the countries that the U.S. is closest to have, for immigration purposes, done exactly this.”
“In fact,” says Neilson of Immigration Equality, “there are 19 countries that give immigration benefits to same-sex couples, but only four or five that grant full marriage rights. So it’s not a revolutionary idea that if you can prove that you’re in a committed relationship you can sponsor your partner for immigration benefits.”
This gives the couples hope, but the wait for many of them is becoming insufferable. “I think one day it will happen,” says Sissi Loftin, “but, you know, I’m 64. What if I had a heart attack, or something? How desperate would we both be if Janet couldn’t get back into the country and I was in the hospital? I really need her to be here with me now. We’re not going to live to be 120. These are the years that I want us to be together.”
Constantino Diaz-Duran is a writer living in Manhattan. He has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, El Diario NY and the Orange County Register.