Steve Ralls

For Love AND Country: Immigration & The LGBT Community

Filed By Steve Ralls | June 19, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics, Politics
Tags: immigration, Immigration Equality, Jerrold Nadler, Mike Honda, military, Senate hearing, Shirley Tan

In 1999, when I first began working for repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the question I heard most often - from friends, colleagues and the media - was "why?" Why did I, having never served in uniform, care about the right of LGBT people to serve openly in the U.S. military? And why, of all the pressing issues facing our community, did I think repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was so essential to the movement for full equality?

The answer - which was not so widely acknowledged a decade ago - was actually quite simple: When the federal government can officially discriminate against us, it is implicitly giving permission for the larger community to do the same. Toppling the military's gay ban would also topple any misconception that LGBT people were somehow unable, or unwilling, to protect and defend our country. And when that misconception is finally off the books, it will have a broad ripple effect that benefits us all.

Now, a decade after joining the fight against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," I'm proud to be part of another movement that leaves some in our community scratching their heads and wondering "why." It is the movement to end anti-LGBT discrimination in the U.S. immigration system. And, like the campaign to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," it is an issue whose time has come and the consequences of which are broad, and powerful, for all LGBT people.

After a year of working with the great team at PFLAG - and after 8 ½ years of spearheading media efforts about the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal effort at SLDN - I have joined Immigration Equality, a fantastic organization that is doing truly life-saving work for LGBT and HIV+ immigrants, and for binational couples who are fighting to stay together. Every day, the Immigration Equality legal team is fighting for LGBT and HIV+ people who have been persecuted abroad and are seeking a home, and a safe haven, in the United States. And every day, the entire Immigration Equality staff is fighting to end one of the most fundamental, and heinous forms of discrimination left in our government: The idea that federal lawmakers have a right to tell us who we can, and cannot, share our lives with.

Ending discrimination in current immigration law, you see, isn't just about receiving a "benefit." It is - in short - about obtaining the simple, but powerful, right to love whomever you choose.

Under existing U.S. immigration law, lesbian and gay Americans do not have the option, as their heterosexual neighbors do, of sponsoring their partners for residency in the United States. Instead, binational lesbian and gay couples are forced to spend their lives apart or abroad. Making a home together in the country they love is nearly impossible. Rather, they are forced to make a choice between their country and their partner... an untenable choice that no one should have to make at all.

As a result of this inhumane policy, which Congressman Jerrold Nadler has rightly called "gratuitous cruelty," LGBT couples and their families are being, quite literally, ripped apart by U.S. law.

In Pacifica, California, Shirley Tan, a 43-year-old housewife and mother of 12-year-old twins, faces the very real possibility of being deported in 2011. Despite the fact that her children, and her partner of 23 years, are all American citizens, they cannot sponsor Shirley for residency.

In Long Island, New York, 68-year-old Edwin Blesch and his 62-year-old South African partner, Tim, are facing the prospect of spending their retirement separated by continents, or in a country where Edwin can't receive the Medicare benefits he has earned and deserves.

In London, Gordon Stewart, who sold his family farm in Vermont, is living with his partner, Renato, who could not immigrate to the United States, and waiting for the day when he can return home.

And in San Jose, California, Judy Rickard is considering a move to Canada after taking early retirement from her job so she could make plans that would allow her to be with her partner, Karin, who is from Great Britain.

In fact, in nearly every corner of our country - and in nearly every corner of the world - there are Americans who are fighting to live with the person they love. It is a fight they should never have to undertake, but one that is, at long last, getting increased attention in Washington.

During the past month, the Senate Judiciary Committee has convened hearings on ending anti-LGBT discrimination in our immigration laws. A record 20 Senators (along with 112 House Members) have announced their support for the measure. And Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA) has introduced the first-ever broad piece of legislation which includes our community. It is a landmark measure - The Reuniting Families Act - which would fix many aspect of our broken immigration system for families of all kinds, including LGBT families, too.

All of those efforts come just as The White House and Congress are preparing to address comprehensive immigration reform. And that effort represents an unprecedented opportunity to win an unparalleled victory for the LGBT community... if we all understand how important the effort is, and make our elected leaders aware about how much we care.

Supporting comprehensive immigration reform should be an imperative for our community. When we fix our broken immigration system, and include LGBT families in that process, we won't just be making life better for binational couples. We will also be an instrumental part of making our country better for everyone. We can play a pivotal role in keeping not just gay families - but all families - together, and we can take pride in knowing that, when we are successful, our government can't keep families apart anymore.

A decade ago, many people asked "why" equality in our military mattered. Today, the answer is well understood. Now, we are faced with another important opportunity to educate ourselves about "why" and break down more federal barriers that keep us from full equality, and from the families and people we love.

It is time for the LGBT community to get behind comprehensive immigration reform and support our Congressional heroes - like Congressman Nadler, Senator Leahy and Congressman Honda - who are working to make us part of this critically important effort, too. Just as we all now know that military policy does, in many ways, impact us all, we must also understand that when one American is kept away from the person he or she loves, there are repercussions for the rest of us as well.

This is about keeping Shirley Tan with her children. It is about allowing Edwin Blesch to spend his retirement with the partner he loves. And it is about bringing Gordon Stewart home to the country that has always been his home. But it's also about something much, much bigger: Being part of a solution that helps everyone and not just some.


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Congrats on the new job, Steve. :)

Kim Peters | June 23, 2009 10:45 AM

When my husband and I found out our daughter was gay we felt like our biggest concern was that she would need to move out of our home state, Ohio, in order to live a comfortable life, get married, and raise a family. No one likes to feel forced out.

Now that she's in college she is on a career path that will take her abroad to live and work. While there she just may meet a a beautiful young woman who is "the one" and just maybe, they'll want to live in the U.S.

I've always considered myself pretty aware of equal rights issues. I have a conscience. But in 1999, when my daughter was 11 and a "tom boy", I didn't know "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was going to be an issue for our family anymore than I ever expected to be concerned about immigration reform. I will happily travel out of state to see my daughter's new, future family (although I certainly wish Ohio would lighten up) but I can't imagine her being forced to live half a world away.

Thanks for watching out for her.