I had the pleasure of meeting Judy Rickard, author of Torn Apart: United by Love, Divided by Law at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention in Philadelphia this August – just as hurricane Irene was coming on the scene. We spoke about why we were there over some Philly cheesesteaks, and I learned about Judy’s book and the daunting obstacles faced by binational couples. She and her partner Karin know all too well about these struggles.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) makes it impossible for someone to sponsor a same-sex partner for entry into the United States, even if they’re legally married. I knew I wanted to interview Judy for this site, and after reading her book I can’t say how important this issue is and what a privilege it is to introduce her to anyone who’s not read the book – everyone should.
MM: I just finished your book on gay and lesbian binational couples, Torn Apart. It’s upsetting in a lot of ways, seeing the obstacles we face with a partner who’s not a U.S. citizen. Why did you decide to write a book about it?
JR: Mark, I never thought I would write this book. But I knew a book would be a good thing – to educate and to advocate for those of us facing this immigration issue. When I heard from a gay male Facebook friend that Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) had written about her experience with binational immigration problems – and stopped her book event to talk about same-sex binational immigration problems – I knew she was knowledgeable and an ally. I alerted friends I work with at Immigration Equality and hoped they could convince her to work on our issue. They did and she did! Then I asked her if she could write a book, but she was busy on a new project. My wife Karin and I met Elizabeth in New York City in June 2010 at the Immigration Equality event where they honored her for her work. She was excited about the book idea and sad she was not available. She told me there that if I got a book deal, she would write the foreword. I didn’t think I would write a book, but two months later I sat down and started it. It needed to meet the publisher’s deadline for the 2011 catalogue, so I wrote it in 10 weeks – grueling!
MM: You include quite a few stories of other couples in the book. How did you meet them, and how did you approach them to be in the book?
JR: I knew some of the folks from the past and had met some during the two years Karin and I had been attending events in DC and NYC. Others I found on Facebook or on blogs or through referrals. If I found a family that had our issue, I asked them if they would participate. Most people I contacted were glad to help. Some had to think a bit before saying yes because it is public and they face difficult challenges. A couple decided not to continue and one very excited couple just plain disappeared. I am so proud of those who shared their stories because it helps all of us and helps educate the majority of this very specific minority group’s need.
JR: Immigration Equality is an amazing group dedicated to ending same-sex binational families’ immigration discrimination. They have lawyers and staff in offices in New York City and in Washington, DC. They lobby for us. They do pro bono legal work for individuals seeking asylum and binational LGBT families who need assistance. This group, started in 1994 as the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force, Immigration Equality and its newer Immigration Equality Action Fund PAC educate, do outreach, advocate and maintain a nationwide network of resources. Through the Action Fund, Immigration Equality lobbies on Capitol Hill for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive immigrants and their families. Immigration Equality is dedicated to passing the Uniting American Families Act, UAFA, which will add three words to U.S. immigration law “or permanent partner” so that same-sex couples can sponsor their wives and husbands for immigration. Current law says spouse, and because of Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA, same-sex couples are not eligible for spousal sponsorship. Immigration Equality also works to pass LGBT-inclusive Comprehensive Immigration Reform by other bills proposed in Congress – making sure that LGBT Americans are included in efforts to fix immigration problems. Immigration Equality can be reached online at www.immigrationequality.org
MM: Do you think there’s a lack of concern in the LGBT media for the plight of binational couples, and is that changing with visibility and coverage?
JR: I don’t think there’s a lack of concern, in fact, many articles have been printed or in online media about this issue over the past year or so. It is more public. That’s good. People are sharing their stories. That’s good. Media folks are hearing about this issue. That’s good. I think it’s like anything that is not a mainstream issue – we need to push to make sure it gets on the table. I have had lots of stories published about my book and have had reviews in many LGBT publications. I have had two publicists working on getting the word out and they have done very well in reaching pertinent media. I think we can always get more exposure, and I never give up. I attended the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention in August and was glad to see so much interest from people I met there in this topic – including you, Mark!
MM: You write about your life with Karin with a humorous flair, even though it’s full of challenges. When will have you to leave the country again for her visa issues?
JR: That’s a very interesting question. We can’t answer that definitively right now. She/we are waiting to hear the outcome of her application, through our lawyer Lavi Soloway, for a visa extension. We will know more about our future when we get the answer from the government about that.
MM: You met Karin when you were 57 years old and she was 65. There’s no such thing as too late when it comes to matters of the heart. Did you find there were any differences in meeting a partner later in life?
JR: Yes and no. You can be silly and impetuous and all that at any age – if you are that type of person. We are! So it’s been a lot of fun. We met online, which was a new thing for both of us. Karin was visiting in the U.S. at the time, so the international aspect didn’t show up for a while – but we dealt with it because we wanted to be together. We had committed to exploring a life together, and so far it has just been one of the components. It’s not something lots of people have to deal with, but more people deal with this than we ever realized at the first of our life together. We are lucky in one respect because of being older. Because I had to stay here and work while Karin had to leave the country every six months, we were separated. After Karin was told to leave for a long time (unspecificed length of time) we were separated for nearly a year. That made the decision clear that I would have to retire early in order for us to be together. While I would have worked a few more years to get my optimum pension, we didn’t want to be separated for long periods of time. So I quit working and we now live on my pension, which is not as large as it might have been. I also get Social Security now. It’s a whole new world for us in lots of ways. Being retired gave me the time to write the book too…so that’s a good thing.
And of course, as older lesbians, we knew what we did and didn’t want from a relationship – and in spite of that we still had to deal with differences and quirks and all, just like younger couples. My personal feeling is that age and experience give you a good perspective on what matters and what can be disregarded. That helps me a lot.
MM: You use pseudonyms for some of the couples in the book. That speaks to an element of fear that being known could cause problems for them. Can you address that?
JR: Actually, only one couple has pseudonyms, the couple with the undocumented partner. The fear of being found out is strong for him and them but they felt it was important to participate. Other couples use their names and know that they are being brave and risking somewhat but are committed to help solve the problem. The biggest fear factor in writing the book was for the couple that actually declined to be interviewed after agreeing. This is the chapter on marrying a partner of the opposite gender to get a green card. That is a serious offense if caught and the risk was too great for them after they trusted me to share their story anonymously. I appreciate the risk. I appreciate the danger. I appreciate them trying. I do not fault them nor do I fault the couple with the pseudonyms.
MM: Given the current political climate, with an entrenched Republican party that appears to be run by the far right, what hope do you see for the Uniting American Families Act or anything like it?
JR: That is a very hard question. I was thrilled to be in DC for the landmark Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on that bill. I met wonderful allies and other couples and families in our situation. Karin and I found it life-changing and it turned out to provide several stories for the book when I began that project.
When my Congressman, Mike Honda, had his press conference to introduce his legislation for truly comprehensive immigration law, Reuniting Families Act, RFA, the following day, Karin and I were in another room in DC being proud and feeling a bit more optimistic. But that was in 2009 and this is 2011. I appreciate what President Obama has done on DOMA and what Attorney General Holder and Secretary of Homeland Defense Janet Napolitano and Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement John Morton have done in their approach to deportation. I applaud the individual judges who have held off or terminated cases involving deportations of same-sex husbands or wives.
The reality is that the current Congress will not be able to pass anything that will help us. I can’t see that happening without a Democratic majority in both houses. I am proud of the 69 Congressional members who signed the recent letter demanding clarification for us on the status of deportations. I know that allies will continue to work for us, but they cannot win by legislation now I don’t think. I do think we may get a court decision on DOMA that may make things good for us. I hope the President is right when he says it will happen in months, not years. If DOMA goes, that means spouse can mean same gender, not just opposite gender, and we should be treated equally under immigration law.
MM: After reading Torn Apart I very much wanted to let people know of the serious injustices faced by gay and lesbian binational couples. How can people get involved in changing this?
JR: There are three main groups that work on this issue. They are the beneficiaries of money earned by sales of my book – whatever that will turn out to be. I wrote the book to educate, to advocate and to raise funds for the groups that work for our solution. So if people want to donate to these groups, that’s a big help.
Immigration Equality www.immigrationequality.org
Love Exiles Foundation http://www.loveexiles.org/
People can do some other things – things that don’t involve money. They can write letters to the editor of their paper talking about the issue and urging reform. They can write letters to their legislators. You can find out if your legislator has supported UAFA, RFA, Comprehensive Immigration Reform, or the newest effort, Respect for Marriage Act which seeks to overturn DOMA. If they have not co-sponsored, ask them to. If they have co-sponsored, thank them.
There are other groups working on civil liberties and human rights and LGBT rights too. You can join them, donate to them, or contact them to see if you can work with them or speak to them. You can post on Facebook and twitter, write blogs, lots of ways to share this information with others and seek allies.
MM: It would be easy to say that I’d face any obstacle if my partner Frank was not a U.S. citizen, but that’s not our reality. What would you find important to say to someone who finds themselves faced with loving a non-citizen, knowing that even if they marry our federal government won’t recognize it?
JR: Ouch! That’s the biggest, toughest question…First I would say I know your pain. Second I would say do you know about my book and the groupshttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif that are there to help you. Then I would hug them really tight – actually, I think I would do that first. I would listen carefully to what they are saying and then offer what I know and what Ihttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif have learned. I would tell them that things are changing. I would remind them of different visa options. I would make sure they knew Karin and I would always be there to share and to listen and to help as we could. That’s what life is about – being there for each other. I know my situation is not easy, but Karin and I have it much easier than so many folks in this situation. We are not working. We do not have young children. Those two aspects of life make this situation more stressful and hurtful.
You can see Judy Rickard’s ‘Torn Apart’ site and blog here.
See the Torn Apart Facebook Page here.
Read excerpts from ‘Torn Apart: United by Love, Divided by Law’ here.
And follow ‘Torn Apart’ on Twitter @tornapartbook