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Exiled from main street

U.S. immigration laws compel some gay Americans to leave country

Patricia and Lauren met in a New York City bar.

They'd crossed paths before at the video store and the deli. From their chance encounters and exchanged glances, Patricia guessed that Lauren was shy. Patricia, on the other hand, was a boisterous woman from Brazil — aggressive, sensual and saucy.

One evening, Lauren was at the bar where Patricia worked. As Patricia mixed a Tom Collins, Lauren shot her a glance. Minutes later, Patricia came to Lauren's table. "When are we gonna play?" she asked.

"I'll have to check my appointment book," Lauren responded, in typical New York fashion.

"I didn't know if she was trying to diss me or what," recalls Patricia as she and Lauren laugh together on a gray futon in their intown Atlanta loft. The couple has been together for eight years.

Lauren and Patricia (not their real names) love to tell stories about their relationship, but recalling memories stirs a sense of foreboding in the women. Because they are lesbians, Lauren and Patricia's relationship is not a legal union in the eyes of the U.S. government so they don't enjoy the same immigration rights as a heterosexual couple. A gay U.S. citizen can't marry his lover and sponsor his permanent immigration to this country the way a heterosexual man or woman can.

So next May, when Patricia's student visa expires, the couple plans to abandon their life here. They will leave their renovated home filled with self-portraits and eclectic mementos, part with their two full-grown chocolate Labradors and flee to Brazil, if only temporarily. Like the U.S., Brazil does not recognize same-sex partnerships, but there is a bill currently under consideration that could change all that. If it doesn't pass, Lauren and Patricia will be forced to seek asylum elsewhere.

Countries that recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes are Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden and the U.K. The United States could be added to that list if a bill currently in Congress is passed. H.R. 690, the Permanent Partners Immigration Act, would add the phrase "permanent partner" to the federal law's list of definitions of family, encompassing not only same-sex partners but unmarried heterosexual partners as well. Unfortunately for Patricia and Lauren, the bill is still in sub-committee and is not expected to pass this year.

Patricia is confounded by the U.S. policy toward homosexuals. To her, democracy and discrimination are antithetical.

"The law against gays impairs every citizen, straight and gay," she says. "Immigrants will subvert the law, use the government, to stay with their partners. They aren't going to give up their families without a fight. The lack of legislation ends up creating more illegal activity." Her brown eyes widen. "What happens in people's beds is no business of the government." After 9-11, Immigration and Naturalization Service quit handing out visas like free samples in the American Culture Superstore. For some U.S. citizens, this heightened xenophobia has only fueled their fears. These citizens aren't necessarily afraid of losing their families to violent acts of terrorism; they are gay couples from different countries that fear the U.S. government's effort to separate them.

"One of the primary goals of U.S. immigration law is 'family unification,' but in this case, the INS is tearing these families apart," says Scott Titshaw, immigration attorney at Arnall Golden Gregory in Atlanta. "This is a basic human rights issue. Is it a fair government that denies many of its citizens the right to be with the one they love?"

Here's one immigration scenario: A straight American man falls in love with a Korean woman on vacation in San Francisco. After a two-day love affair, they get hitched in Vegas. In minutes and for little more than $50, the Korean woman can obtain a green card sponsored by her new husband's citizenship.

Now consider this: Two people meet. One is a U.S. citizen, the other a non-citizen. They fall in love. They buy a home, invest in a 401k, take vacations and make memories. They are committed to each other. They are like every other couple from two different countries, except they're gay. Now imagine the non-citizen's temporary visa has expired. He has three options: 1) secure corporate sponsorship; 2) leave the country by himself and reapply for another temporary visa; 3) leave the country for good with his or her American partner in tow, who then becomes an exile.

There are ways to circumvent the law, says Titshaw. Some couples buy fake green cards on the black market, risking deportation and imprisonment. Others arrange sham heterosexual marriages, hazarding deportation, imprisonment and fines up to $250,000. However, most just stay illegally, trying to silently weave their way through the bureaucracy. But according to Titshaw, that's become a riskier endeavor since 9-11.

Immigration discrimination will drive American performance artist Tim Miller and his Australian/Scottish partner Alistair McCartney out of the U.S. in February 2003.

The two met in 1994 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London where a jet-lagged Miller was on a panel, answering questions about multiculturalism in the Los Angeles art scene.

In his performance piece Shirts and Skins, Miller recalls the moment they connected: "I saw that he was looking at me, and we made eye contact for a moment. He had that wonderful, slightly shocked Scots-Irish, 19th-century look, like those old daguerreotype photos of the fresh-faced Civil War soldiers, so optimistic about their big adventure before they got slaughtered at Antietam or Chickamauga."

At that time, Miller had already weathered a war of sorts — the Culture War of the late '80s and early '90s. Miller was one of the "NEA Four" — four artists who, in 1990, were awarded — then stripped of — grants from the National Endowment for the Arts because the of the "indecent material" contained in their work.

Miller's work is an intelligent and humorous look into the life of gay Americans. His performance pieces blend voluble ranting, bittersweet narrative, lulling heartsongs and an occasional pose on the proverbial soapbox — often in the nude. He returns to Atlanta Sept. 13 to perform Body Blows, a night of excerpts from six performance pieces at Oglethorpe's Conant Performing Arts Center. It is a compendium of Miller's finest moments on stage since 1996, charting both his personal progression as a gay performance artist and the recent history of gay culture. And this time, Miller keeps all his clothes on — a rare occurrence for the exhibitionist.

In his work, Miller often resurrects a biographical story from his past. His performance piece Glory Box, which was staged at 7 Stages in 2000 and which will be excerpted in Body Blows, deals specifically with he and his partner's immigration dilemma.

"In Glory Box, I tell a funny story about asking a boy to marry me when I was 9 years old," Miller says in a recent interview. "He beats me up, shoves a Twinkie down my throat and tells me to 'take it back.' I do take it back, but I cross my fingers behind my back before I do. Now," Miller says, " the U.S. government beats me up and jams its homophobic laws denying my partner immigration rights down my throat. I preferred the Twinkie."

Although he's gay, Miller's work is universal. It speaks to all those who've loved and laughed at themselves for doing it. Through his performances, he's managed to change audience members' perceptions of gay culture. "High school sophomores in the Dakotas come up to me after I perform and say, 'Hey man, we're not gay, but we understand that what's happening is wrong.' Why can't the educated government say that?" asks Miller.

Not long after 9-11, Miller and McCartney were prompted to go to the British Consulate to obtain same-sex partner immigration forms because, Miller says, "the attacks gave Republicans a carte-blanche to ... abuse the civil rights of internationals." When McCartney's student visa expires, the couple plans to leave the country for the more tolerant climes of the U.K.

For Atlanta couple Jason and Joey, the fact that the U.S. government does not acknowledge their relationship is doubly disastrous. Jason, a Japanese national, is HIV positive.

In the five-and-a-half years they've been together, they've raised two cats, perfected their tennis game and started their own financial consulting company. But as the law now stands, they will be forced into exile together, or worse, forced to separate, in May 2003 when Jason's work visa expires.

"The worst case scenario is that I will have to leave alone for a year and then ... reapply for a three-year work visa. But with HIV, that's not guaranteed," says Jason in the couple's Midtown home, tastefully decorated in rustic colors and Asian art.

When applying for a green card, potential immigrants are required to have a health examination performed by a state-appointed physician. It includes a test for HIV. The U.S. denies immigration rights to people with HIV, although a waiver may be obtained if the immigrant has close family ties in the U.S. For Jason, Joey is family, but because their relationship isn't recognized by the U.S. government, he doesn't count. Therefore, Jason has no legitimate avenue for staying in the country after May.

"Gay Americans submit to a disrespect of their basic humanity that gay people in other Western countries would find unacceptable from their governments," says Miller. "We have accommodated sodomy laws, exclusion of gays in the military and this inhumane decree against people, particularly queers with HIV."

Jason and Joey (not their real names) considered arranging a sham heterosexual marriage. Friends even volunteered to be Jason's wife. But like Lauren and Patricia, and Miller and McCartney, they don't want to stay in a country where they're forced to lie about their sexual orientation.

So Jason and Joey took a more circumspect approach. They founded an accounting business together in the hopes of attaining corporate sponsorship for Jason. They did it all by the book, running an ad for Jason's position in the AJC for three weeks. When the company "hired" Jason, it had to prove he was an irreplaceable asset, which wasn't a problem since he speaks Japanese and handles all of their Asian accounts. Everything was running smoothly for the couple until they discovered Jason's disease.

"I had the final papers for his green card on my desk the day he called," says Joey, who remains HIV negative.

Fortunately, Jason's T-cell count is high; he doesn't yet have to take medication, a prospect that could have far-reaching repercussions for the couple. Jason travels to Asia frequently for business, and he could be denied entry back into the United States if he were discovered to have HIV medication in his possession.

"This is something I can't control," says Jason. "I have to take it in and move on. If I start thinking I am in such a powerless situation, that I am such an insignificant part of the community, my whole life is a shamble. I'd rather move forward," he says.

Jason and Joey are considering Canada as a permanent vacation spot when Jason's visa expires. Last July, Canada reformed its marriage law to include same-sex partnerships. Advocates are hoping the same can be said about the U.S. soon.

So far, 100 out of 435 legislators support the Permanent Partners Immigration Act, including U.S. Reps. Cynthia McKinney and John Lewis. But the bill hasn't even been introduced in the Senate yet, so it will likely die when Congress recesses at the end of the year.

Titshaw, an advocate of H.R. 690, advises his clients not to invest too much hope in the bill passing any time soon. "The progress of this matter hinges on the elections," he says.

Unfortunately, time is what couples like Miller and McCartney, Lauren and Patricia, Jason and Joey do not have.

Says Miller: "I'm trying to keep in mind how slowly this country moves, considering that it took 80 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed to free slaves. And then, black people are still not 'free' today."

Tim Miller presents Body Blows Sept. 13 at 8 p.m. at Oglethorpe University's Conant Performing Arts Center, 4484 Peachtree Road. $10. 404-504-1074. www.oglethorpe.edu/theatre . The Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force will hold an organizational meeting Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. at Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeehouse, 991 Piedmont Ave. ?www.lgirtf.org.??



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