Friday, April 3, 2009

Letter mailed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Dear President Obama

Re: A request for urgent action on Uniting American Families Act.

I am a New Zealander, writing to you from New Zealand. I have been in a same sex bi-national relationship with an American woman for nine years.

I understand that you are an incredibly busy man but I also believe you to be a man of, and for, the people and I know that civil rights are on your White House agenda. I therefore respectfully ask that you read the attached article, a personal account of the struggles my American partner and I have endured in our fight to be together. I wrote this for publication in a New Zealand gay and lesbian newspaper in the hope that it will put a human face on the American civil rights issue of same sex bi-national immigration. This article was not intended to be a rational account but rather a spontaneous outpouring of the heart . When one lives long term in this discriminatory situation it becomes very difficult to write a rational and coolly analytical treatise.

When I wrote the attached article (A) several weeks ago it was hard for me to conceive of this situation getting any worse for my America partner, Cas, and myself, but regrettably it has. Cas’s financial situation, already severely strained by the pressures of this bi-national relationship, has now taken another massive hit as a result of the recession. Tonight we have reluctantly faced the fact that we cannot afford to have me return to America from New Zealand in July of this year and that it may be a year before we see each other again (this on top of the 7 months we have already been apart) We dealt with this realisation in the same way that we have dealt with so many other distressing situations over the nine years we have been together as a couple - with devotion and love. Not knowing what else to do I read to her over the phone from ten thousand miles away until finally she fell asleep. I kept reading to her long after that point. Over the last nine years I have learnt that the sound of a loved one sleeping is very comforting, even from such a vast distance.

President Obama, I hardly have the words to describe to you the pain I felt when I hung up the phone and broke the precious bond of sound that connected us. The passing of the Uniting American families Act will ensure that the hardship we, and 35,000 other couples like us, have endured for so long will finally end. Please, I urge you to urgently lend your support to this piece of legislation. Now is not the time for Americans like Cas, who are already suffering due to the recession, to be forcibly kept apart from their loved ones. Other Americans, who are not in our situation, are not having recession hardship greatly compounded by a lack of civil rights.

Thank you for the attention you have given my letter. I trust you will make it out to New Zealand one day soon. You are very warmly regarded out here!



Where a Civil Union Brings No Civil Rights

For much of the year I live here in Dunedin, New Zealand, and, whenever possible, share a home two hours out of New York with my American partner of nine years, Cas.

In August 2008 Cas and I drove from New York state into Bennington, Vermont where we entered into a civil union. Our intention was that this ceremony be a very civil affair. Celebration would follow at a later date when family and friends from both New Zealand and America could stand as witness. We signed official documents in the presence of one friend and Frankie & Johnny, the Bennington town clerk's two cats. As we prepared to leave the office someone offered us the services of the town clerk's wife, a Justice who had written vows for just such an event. She arrived within ten minutes, borrowed my reading glasses because she had forgotten her own, and proceeded to lead us through the recitation of vows that were romantic beyond words. All of us, with the possible exception of Frankie & Johnny, were reduced to tears.

Sadly this civil union gave neither of us any civil rights at a federal level and ten days later, my visa waiver due to expire, Cas drove me to JFK airport to begin the farewell process we have gone through so many times before. Whenever possible I travel to America on these 90 day visa waivers and whilst there will turn my head away rather than follow the path of departing planes across the sky. But as we head to JFK I know that now I must look upward. Now I must face the fact that I am once again about to fly away from the woman I love and from the huge, colourful and deeply comforting world I have there ~ from our 6 cats, our rustic house in the woods, from the property we own together on the banks of the Delaware river, from our simple comforting daily rituals and our wonderful friends, all of whom believe unflinchingly in our love. Now, as the sign directing us to “Qantas. Terminal Eight” looms over us the luxury of denial is no more.

Years ago we decided not to draw this exhausting and painful farewell process out. Now she swings up to the doors of the terminal where I leap out and hurriedly grab my bag. We hug, kiss and cry fleetingly and then I rush off, calling back to her as I enter the doors of the terminal “See you soon!”

“Soon” in our case is around 9 months and is defined by personal financial constraints and frustratingly obscure visa waiver laws which have made it impossible for us to find out exactly how long I must remain out of the country before I can legally return on another visa waiver. We err on the side of caution rather than risk my being denied entry at the border. I have been home here without her in Dunedin now since late August 2008 and “soon” is now half over. I will return to America in July 2009.

Cas and I met online in mid 2000. Our initial friendship blossomed into love unexpectedly on Christmas Day 2000 (I still clearly recall the exact moment when I realised I was in love with her) and we met at JFK in February 2001. Our love flourished that spring like the shimmering tulips that lined the avenues of Manhattan. The memories of those early days in New York city will never leave either of us. It could not have been more perfect.

Over time, however, our initial naiveté gave way to stark realism . We came to see that we were just one of approximately 35000 same sex bi-national couples (where one is an American) and that, in the eyes of the US Federal government , our love did not exist. That spring of 2001 we stood at the base of the mountain that loomed between us and equal rights and pleaded “Move!”. The mountain did not move.

But neither did we.

Initially we fought hard, each giving speeches in 2001 at the New York Gay and Lesbian Centre the night Congressman Nadler introduced his Permanent Partners Immigration Act (PPIA) to the New York LGBT community. (Attachment B) We were amazed back then how few even in our own community knew of the existence of this large body of same-sex bi-national couples who are torn apart over and over again by discriminatory US immigration law. Nadler’s bill would provide American LGBT citizens the right to sponsor their partners for immigration, holding them to the same standards of proof of relationship that heterosexual couples are held to. To date this bill has been presented a number of times but has not passed.

As time went on we came to realise that our absolute silence was wiser than a very public fight. We lived in fear of my being refused entry at the Los Angeles border and, like other bi-national couples, knew that our greatest challenge was not to change the laws (that was for others who did not stand to lose their loved one through a very visible civil rights battle) but rather to survive and to grow as a couple in the face of this challenging situation. We knew that one day that mountain would move and when it did we wanted to be there, standing tall, ready to forge on through!

Eight years on we have exchanged close to 20,000 emails while apart. To date Cas has not been able to fly out here to New Zealand because of her struggle with claustrophobia and so in order that we can be together I have spent 500 hours flying 250,000 miles at a cost of $50,000. We have taken literally thousands of photos documenting the joy we experience when together ~ always the heart stopping joy! This last three years alone we have talked on the phone whilst apart for 2000 hours. We have laughed and cried and faithfully documented that laughter and those tears. Our scrapbook is huge and growing with each new day and it bears testament to a life lived outside the square; a life that is, in spite of everything, rich and deeply satisfying . Back in 2001 it was decreed by others who did not know us that our love did not exist. We knew otherwise. We have survived.

We despair at the discrimination but we avoid falling into bitterness and hatred. Cas’s family, who hold fundamentalist Christian values, have opened their homes to me, and to Cas and I as a couple, and while we may disagree with their views we know from first hand experience that the love in their hearts is as real and as sincere as ours.

I did not find it easy to write this article as I knew it would cause despair to rise in us both again. For the most part we keep the negative emotions surrounding this situation at a safe distance and focus on the positive. But I felt I must write it because tomorrow Barack Obama is to be sworn in as President of The United States. This inauguration places at the helm of this deeply divided country the one man I believe is capable of bringing down the mountain that has stood between us and equal rights these last eight years ~ not tearing it down in anger but dismantling it rock by rock, in a climate of inclusivity and respect for all. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s Chief of Staff, is one of approximately 120 co-sponsors of the PPIA (now called the Uniting American Families Act) and his appointment has been a source of great hope for us both.

Survival as a couple through all these years has depended on us taking one day at a time. It has depended on us savouring that one day as the precious gift that it is, whether we are together or ten thousand miles apart. And it has depended on our holding our position against all odds ~ firm in the belief that in the end it will be that mountain, and not our love, which yields!

Below are excerpts from the speech written by my American partner Cas and delivered by her at New York City Gay and Lesbian Center 2001, on the night that Congressman Nadler introduced his Permanent Partners Immigration Act (now Uniting American Families Act) to the New York LGBT community.
I am an American, born in this country, and my partner, Helen, is from New Zealand. We have been partners for over one and a half years and she is the love of my life.

I have always taken great pride in claiming my heritage as a citizen of the United States, believing that all men are created equal, that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are our inherent rights as citizens, and that our government was based on and bound to protect such rights. However, recent events in my life have forced me to look at the facts. I find myself becoming disillusioned at the enormous gap between what is promised every American and what is in fact MY reality!

Helen has not been able to participate in the significant events of my life as most committed partners are. Prior to September 11th 2001 she reluctantly left the United States to return to New Zealand in order to comply with the terms of the visa waiver which granted her entry into this country. On the evening of 9.11 we were 10,000 miles apart. We each placed the phone beside us on our pillow and kept the line open for 6 hours as we tried to sleep. This gave us some comfort but was no substitute for being together at a time when we needed each other the most.

Under the terms of her visa waiver Helen is prevented from working in America and her work in New Zealand is difficult to retain due to the extended length of time she leaves her country to be with me whenever she can. We therefore rely for the most part on one income to support the extensive travel and expenses involved in our being together.

America champions family values and yet in order to be with my partner I am expected to leave my family to live in a country 10,000 miles away. If I take that course what will I say when people ask me why I left America? What can I say? That I left America because they told me who I can and cannot love?
No matter who we as a nation choose as our elected leaders our government was founded on the premise that all men are created equal. Therefore government policy should not be defined by personal opinion and dictated by fear. It should hold true to the principle that we all have a right to share a common destiny. It should be written to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Rather than aiming to establish ourselves as a world power should we not aim to be a world leader in the field of human rights?

Helen and my favorite times of day are many .. our morning coffee together on the deck, lakeside walks, long weekend drives and picnics in the country, arguments over toothpaste at night. What is so different about our love?

In a few weeks - the days will feel shorter and I will feel the agony of saying goodbye to the one whom I have loved the most - because my country has forsaken me.


James said...

Dear Helen,
I feel for you! I am in a similar situation. I am an American living in Amsterdam with my German partner. He and I met in San Francisco over 9 years ago and have been together ever since. After 5 years in San Francisco together, we decided to give Europe a try. However, we now both want to move back to San Francisco, but we cannot because of the inequality we same-sex couples face. It is very disheartening as a gay American to realize my country does not provide me with EQUAL rights.

I am going to write a long letter from the hear, but respectful to my Senators from California, 1 of them, Dianne Feinstein has not even co-sponsored the "Uniting American Families Act" yet!! I will send my letter to Obama, too, because I want to go home! I wish you and your partner all the best and hope for the NEAR future that you two can be reunited. BELIEVE ME, you two are not alone in your struggle......KEEP UP THE GOOD FIGHT! I know it is hard...I could NOT imagine living without my partner.

Kind regards,
James Ashburn
American in exile in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Helen said...

Dear James
Your comment was such a happy event for me!! Thank you! It is hard to find any clear point of online communication between what must surely be a huge offshore community of non-Americans and Americans alike. There must be so many of us who "just want to go home"! (As far as I am concerned when one loves an American one rightfully calls America HOME!!!)
I wish you and your partner every happiness and an end to this exile you are living through.
Warmest regards to you both