MARRY ME? Cross-border love affairs are hard enough. But if your partner wants to immigrate to Canada, be ready for extra headaches — especially if you're operating outside of the hetero norm. It's a bitter pill to swallow. (Mia Hansen illustration)
My American girlfriend and I enter the reception area of the lawyer's office with some trepidation, feeling conspicuous because of our casual clothes and young age. I check out the very expensive abstract art while Annie sits on a chic plastic chair and bites her nails.
We've only waited about five minutes when we're called in by a well-coiffed and flamboyantly gay assistant named Glen. He leads us down the hall to meet our new immigration lawyer, Daniel, who is so aesthetically pleasing that I'm distracted by it during the introductions. He's wearing a tangerine golf shirt that matches the tangerine wall behind him, and his biceps are the size of small melons.
We take our seats, and I suddenly become aware of the heavy metallic sculpture that's suspended from the ceiling above our heads. The hippie in me says, oh, bad feng shui! I shift my chair a little to get out of its path.
"Okay girls, let's get started," says Daniel, gay lawyer extraordinaire. "The first thing you should know is that this whole process will be much easier if you get married. Is that something you're interested in?"
We came to this meeting with a game plan and this certainly isn't it — we're taken aback. In fact, we had chosen a gay lawyer in the hopes of avoiding a few status quo assumptions about our goals for this relationship. A long, awkward silence ensues.
Daniel's eyes dart between us like he's watching a tennis game on television. He waits for one of us to speak up. It doesn't happen.
"I know, I know," Daniel continues. "It's so awkward! Do you propose, does she propose? I mean, if it's easier for you, I could propose."
Annie squirms, and I work toward putting my irreverent thoughts into words. Delicately.
"We've discussed that possibility, and it's not what we want," I say. "I read on the Citizenship and Immigration Canada site that we could apply as common-law partners after living together for a year. We'd like to do that."
"Well, since Annie is working part-time in the States, you won't count as common law partners — even though you're sharing an address part of each week," says Daniel. "So we're not going to do that. Seriously, are you absolutely sure you don't want to get married?"
Annie takes the reins this time.
"We're sure," says Annie. "Absolutely sure — we don't want to get married."
I suppose I could have elaborated here to say that we were actually engaged. In a non-traditional kind of way. But the commitment that we had made to each other bore no resemblance to what I think Daniel meant by the word "engaged," let alone what the Government of Canada meant.
The year before, at a small café in Brooklyn, Annie and I had wordlessly exchanged $32 stainless steel rings embossed with the mantra for compassion. It was a spontaneous decision, but we knew what we meant by it — that we were deeply charmed by each other's loveliness, felt certain about sharing a future in some way and wanted to have a symbol that recognized the importance of our connection. We were in love and wanted our relationship to deepen and continue for a long time.
As a couple, we weren't really focussed on an eventual wedding or the wedded bliss that was supposed to follow the big day. We sometimes talked about being engaged as a life-long commitment rather than needing to go any further. It was about us trying and growing and being truthful in our relationship, while being open to experiences with other people. Not something I felt I could easily explain to our lawyer. But I digress.
"Huh. Too bad," says Daniel, looking a bit crestfallen. "You know that you're going to have to work very hard to prove that you have an authentic relationship? You two will have to bring forward all kinds of personal information — phone records, bank statements, love letters, photos, statements from your family and friends about your relationship. It's going to be a lot of work."
This last bit has confirmed my suspicion that he is foisting marriage on us to save him vast amounts of paperwork. But it irks me even more to know that the process is going to be so much more work because we're not getting married.
But what should I expect, right? This is just one of the many little carrots dangling in front of me, saying, "It's easier this way, why don't you just choose a normal life?" Taken separately, these little guideposts seem innocuous, innocent even, but together they form a morally loaded roadmap. And I hate acceptable behaviour.
I'm very thankful in this moment that my non-monogamous hippie parents taught me that what's easy isn't always the best option for my life. Because of our family structure growing up (two couples who were romantically involved with each other and living in the same home with their four children), I learned early on that the road most-travelled gets pretty smooth from the foot traffic. The social lubricant of normalcy can be very compelling, but its safety takes away more interesting options.
Daniel is beginning to make me nervous with his zeal for marriage. I worry that he's going to twist our relationship into something unrecognizable for the benefit of Citizenship and Immigration Canada — all white picket fences and urges toward pure-breed dogs and such.
Soon enough, he confirms my suspicions.
"Before we proceed, there's something I need to ask you two. This tends to come up in queer relationships," says Daniel with a knowing smile. "Are you now, or have you ever been, non-monogamous in your relationship?"
"We've been open for most of our relationship," says Annie matter-of-factly. "But, recently, we've been experimenting with monogamy. Why?"
"Hmm, that might be a problem," he responds. "Citizenship and Immigration Canada considers a relationship to be committed and genuine only so long as it is sexually exclusive."
Okay, now I'm feeling pissed off and discouraged and alienated. I really want this option to work so that Annie and I can be together in the same place, but I suppose I should know better than to think that any good could come of an intimate dance with the Canadian government. Especially about big gay love.
"So, you're saying that we have to pretend we've always been monogamous or we won't even be considered?" I ask.
"If you'd like to apply as conjugal partners," continues Daniel, sidestepping my question. "CIC considers the date that you became exclusive as the 'start' of your relationship. Not only that — they want to hear that this is the one great love of your life, that you've never truly been in love until now and that you want to do all the traditional things like buying a home and getting dogs and appliances together."
Unbeknownst to me, Annie and I haven't actually been in a relationship all this time. I feel appalled. First, this thinly veiled moralizing about marriage being the only watertight proof of commitment (despite the fact that friends and strangers have been successfully marrying each other for status in Canada since it became a country). And now we can't talk about how our relationship is structured if we want to have the opportunity to live here together legally?
The happy-go-lucky, straight-laced, upward-mobility of it is suffocating. Whose love life actually reads like a Jane Austen novel these days?
I look over at Annie and notice that her knuckles are white from the tight grip she has on her chair. I feel like the only sane thing to do is leave this office immediately, but we came here to find a way to be together. So, what's an unconventional femme to do in a situation like this?
She gets on the phone, my friend.
David Hoe is a long-time queer activist who is now in private practice as a life coach. I'm inspired by his vision of how we can approach not only our intimate relationships but our queer lives more generally.
"As queer people, we bring particular gifts and a particular energy to the planet," Hoe says to me. "But we shouldn't be measured by our ability to blend into a traditional, heterosexual model."
My mind does a little happy dance at this.
"If all of those gifts get derided and neglected, we have to fit ourselves into the mainstream," continues Hoe. "Part of queer culture is bonding in partnership, but that's not the only way that we can say to ourselves that we are fully evolved social beings, such as in heterosexual culture where the premise is that a bona fide relationship looks most like a marriage."
Mulling over my discussion with Daniel, the gay lawyer extraordinaire, I wonder how we can approach all the institutionalized beliefs about credible relationships at the government level? What model do we have to compare it to? Where do we start?
"At this time in history, where global relationships are common, perhaps immigration law should be as flexible as economic law," says Hoe. "If intimacy were as celebrated as economic success, in that policies were as flexible and supportive of connections between people, we would live in a much different world. A shift needs to take place, not just in terms of the policy itself, but in terms of the mindset that established the policy."
So, what are my options here?
Maybe Annie and I should be the first ones to start challenging the policy mindset by disclosing about our polyamoury — after all, it's seen as uncommitted despite weighty evidence to the contrary. It's not even recognized by my spell checker. Clearly some things need to change here.
I sit on this question for months as the immigration application proceeds. We don't mention anything about being open in our supporting documents and, as time ticks by, I feel like the Jeopardy theme song is playing in my head. What to do?
Again I get on the phone — this time to have a heart-to-heart with the government.
Me: For family class applications, can you tell me about the criteria involved in defining what a committed, romantic relationship looks like?
Doug Kellam, CIC Spokesperson: Well, there are instructions in the manuals that our visa officers use. If you're looking at somebody who's married, of course, there are marriage certificates. If you're looking at people who are in common-law relationships, it's a matter of the facts that the applicant presents and the visa officer considers in determining that a common-law relationship does, in fact, exist. The guidelines that they use to come to that decision are available on our website if anyone wants to look at them. There is a whole set of indicators for assessing the application.
Me: To determine if it's a valid relationship?
Me: Okay. Would it be fair to say that the criteria are meant to reflect a marriage-like relationship, even if it isn't a marriage in law?
Doug: Well, more of a loving relationship between two partners.
Me: So what would happen if a family class applicant were to disclose about being in a non-monogamous relationship?
Doug: What do you mean by that? Do you mean polygamous?
Me: A relationship that isn't sexually or romantically exclusive.
Doug: Well, [exclusivity] is one of the factors that a visa officer would look at in establishing what the commitment level is between the individuals. Does that mean that the person would be automatically refused? No, I wouldn't say that. But it certainly wouldn't be a factor in their favour.
In the end, we decide not to disclose anything about the openness of our relationship, knowing that it could jeopardize our future together. The application proceeds in its happy, hetero-esque way. But claiming to be things that we aren't casts a spell of normalcy on us. We begin to focus on traditional couple-y things — formal budgets, weekends away, taking photos of everything. At one point, we seriously consider buying a station wagon.
Sadly, the pressure and the struggle get to be too much. We're fighting constantly. Money is tighter than tight. Bills are escalating. Annie is lonely and solidly in the grips of culture shock. I'm not writing and feel constantly exhausted from being the bread-winner. Sex is a distant memory. We can't make sense of each other anymore. Our life together feels unimaginative and starts to fall apart.
Eventually, we part ways.
The application process drained our financial and emotional resources and gave us the feeling of being on display before a set of critical, meticulous judges. After all, our lives were hanging in the balance while CIC examined us to decide whether we were in a relationship worthy of their consideration. The absence of agency in the process is nothing less than devastating. Especially if you're in any way unorthodox about how you organize your sexual and romantic life.
And so, I have a bit of advice for all you radical queers out there who may one day find yourself in an open relationship with a cross-border heartthrob. It's much more likely that you'll be able to retain the dignity of your choices if your love muffin immigrates as an individual. I know this option isn't open to everyone. Yes, it costs more and the process is longer, but the major bonus is in not having to cram yourself and your lover into an out-dated model of love and commitment that could pull the rug right out from under your relationship.
In fact, I would say that the only reasonable thing to do in this situation is to say, "Fuck you" to the moralizing regulations and keep your personal integrity. I certainly wish I had.