After my traditional engagement to my high school sweetheart fell apart, I was faced with the prospect of another devastating loss: the deportation of my best friend Emir. Desperate to stay in America, Emir tried every legal recourse to obtain a green card, knowing that his return to the Middle East—where gay men are often beaten and sometimes killed—was too dangerous. In an effort to keep him safe and by my side, I proposed to Emir. After a quickie wedding in Las Vegas, we faced new adventures and obstacles in both L.A. and New York City as we tried to dodge the INS. Our relationship was further complicated by the fact that my mother works for the State Department, preventing immigration fraud. In my memoir, The Marriage Act, I delve into the changing face of marriage in America and look at the emergent generation forming bonds outside of tradition—and sometimes even outside the law.
Below is an excerpt:
I remember the citrus salads and late-afternoon Cosmopolitans in the sunny outdoor courtyard of the Abbey, our favorite West Hollywood gay bar. I remember how strange it felt to walk to his apartment rather than drive even though he lived only three blocks away from me. I can’t remember the precise instance when Emir first brought up the verging-on-problematic visa situation. It might have been at a sushi restaurant, or over lunches at the Abbey, or while in line at what the boys around the neighborhood called “the gay Starbucks” on Santa Monica. Emir wanted to stay in the United States past this year to avoid going back into the closet in Emiristan and living with his father. In order to stay, he had to find a job before his visa expired in December, a year after graduation. I told him I was sure he’d find something and I believed it; Emir was creative, intelligent, outgoing, and capable. The possibility that he might not find a way to stay did not cross my mind during those early conversations.
Emir talked with me about his visa situation because doing so was like asking a mechanic’s daughter about engines. I grew up around visas because of my mother’s job: Visa Chief. Chief of All Visas. Immigration Superhero Spy Extraordinaire. I learned so much from her during the years I tagged along. The immigration process was part of my early education. This made me the ideal friend with whom to discuss concerns about finding employer sponsorship for his H-1B work visa at the end of his OPT, the Optional Practical Training visa that followed the F-1 student visa.
The OPT allowed Emir to stay in the country and seek work in his field for one year following graduation. September 11th happened at the nine-month mark. Emir still hadn’t found an employer willing to sponsor him. In the film industry, where entry-level positions were clerical and required no special skill, sponsorship was not worth the hassle of dealing with lawyers, documents, and filing fees. For a corporation, it was a bureaucratic annoyance. Without a job, December meant either deportation or trying to fly under the radar as an illegal immigrant. And this was before the attacks raised the stakes. Fewer jobs plus sudden suspicion of young men from Muslim countries meant finding sponsorship would be that much more difficult.
To be sponsored for a visa, a foreigner has to have an in-demand skill—a surgeon or engineer had far more of a chance than a young filmmaker, and after 9/11 even the best of the special skills set ran into visa troubles. One, for instance, was an infant cardiologist who developed groundbreaking procedures for operating on baby hearts. This man could not get back into the country because of bureaucratic red tape. So what chance did Emir stand?
Emir sat on the beanbag chair in my living room that smelled vaguely of cat urine thanks to Sushi, the feral stray kitten the girls and I had taken in. I swiveled in the secondhand La-Z-Boy.
“Who will hire me after this?” he wondered aloud. “They’ll take one look at my name on my resume and throw it in the garbage.”
“People aren’t that prejudiced,” I repeated.
I wanted to believe it.
“If I go back I’ll be enlisted in the military service. Can you imagine what they’ll do to me in there?”
Emir had been trying for almost a year to find a means by which to stay, and September 11th marked the end of the expectation that anything would come from that trying. A feeling of anxiety permeated the air, the impact of the hijacked aircraft on the Twin Towers reverberating all the way to California, sinking us into a collective state of depression and mourning. Who could focus on searching for clerical positions on Showbizdata.com when there were new images constantly flooding in of the attacks, the cleanup, the conspiracies? Going about our daily lives seemed self-indulgent.
It started long before this conversation, well before Emir’s visa situation became an actual problem. It started out as more of a concern and spiraled down from there. When Emir first told me about it, I thought little, perhaps even nothing, of it, because of course it was going to work out. The universe would pull through, I believed. My outlook in my early twenties was that whatever was meant to happen would happen, that we have little capacity to exert control over the events in our lives. Believing that we are powerless to really change anything was an easy way to avoid responsibility. But something shifted when Emir talked to me about his visa. I tried to think of solutions for my friend, and then, suddenly, what we ought to do about it struck me with such a force that I knew I had hit on the answer, only it felt more as if it hit me, a bolt of lightning. For a brief moment, something made sense.
“I know!” I said. “I’ll marry you!”
I couldn’t save my father. I couldn’t marry Julian. For Emir, I could do both. Save him by marrying him.
“Don’t joke around with me about that, sweetie,” he said.
But I already knew I wasn’t kidding.
There were so many layers to the benefits. I’d been ready to marry and yet not really ready at all. Improvement at anything comes from practice and repetition, and this would be the only opportunity I would ever encounter to have a real live practice marriage. Why I didn’t move in with Julian suddenly made a weird sort of sense: Was this the bend in the road I could not see past? Was this the thing? Yes! Yes of course, this was it! I could be the one to save my friend; I would assume the role of caretaker, protecting him from deportation and danger back in Emiristan. He offered companionship without the possibility of unbearable heartache. It was the ideal option for him, too, as the easiest way to get a green card is to marry a U.S. citizen, a rule that legally applies only to one man and one woman.
Larger issues and questions surrounded our circumstance, though they were not on my mind at the time: What makes a marriage? Why couldn’t a gay person immigrate a same-sex partner? Why were immigration rights gender-biased? Even in a state where gender-neutral unions are recognized, such marriages do not count for immigration purposes. Immigration is a federal-level concern, and same-sex marriage is state law, so the federal government, at the time, did not recognize unions between gay citizens at all. In 1996, President Bill Clinton passed DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, into law. Finally struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, DOMA defined marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” While shows like “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette,” “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?,” and “Married by America”were popular, President George W. Bush gave speeches about the sanctity of marriage and the need for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
Heterosexuals can immigrate foreign spouses in a simple matter of signing a few forms—an American man can order a Russian or Chinese wife off the Internet—and members of same-sex couples couldn’t immigrate the person they love simply because they share a gender. How can this qualify as anything other than discrimination? As if we even have a choice when it comes to whom we love, and I don’t believe we do. This falling isn’t a choice. It happens whether or not you want it, whether you’re looking for an edge over which to leap or not. Most often, such falling happens when it’s least expected.
Suddenly I felt a sense of purpose and direction that I’d never felt before, not about school, a career, or even engagement to Julian. I had never been this sure about anything. Marriage was perfect, fail-safe, and by far the best option. The very thing I’d been wanting—in a frantic mode that verged on desperation—to do in the first place. Why didn’t I think of it before? I was seeking asylum too!
It felt like, well, fate—what I chose to believe in, because it meant everything was moving according to some divine plan (I was an atheist who held these ideas in my head simultaneously), and that in the end it would all somehow make sense. The other thing I knew marriage to Emir would give me, right off the bat, was an agenda, something to do. I had been drifting aimlessly in L.A., searching for meaning and not really finding it in the prop houses and paint shops my art department jobs brought me to. Marrying Emir to keep him with me would be an act that spoke to all of my beliefs about the world, the values my mother instilled: we live in a global village, we must love and respect and honor all cultures and all kinds of people. A Jewish-Italian-American straight girl and a gay boy from a Muslim family—we would transcend those “It’s a Small World” Benetton ads and stand for something greater than ourselves. It seemed presented to me as a gift: marrying Emir would potentially save his life, and it also happened to merge the partnership I so craved with the doing of a good deed—a form of passive activism that brought to mind that 1980s perfume ad campaign: “make a statement without saying a word.”
[Photo from Shutterstock]