Travel
4 min

Turned back at the border

By the 'snarling Face of America'

My two daughters were excited about their first trip to Disneyland long before we stepped into the Vancouver airport.

I have to admit I was pretty excited myself. I was fairly certain we’d have a good time even though we are obviously a dyke family, comprising my femme fiancée, unmistakably butch me, and my 7- and 12-year-old daughters. But first we had to get through US customs.

To this end, I had obtained Canadian citizenship and passports for me and the girls — tasks that had taken more than a year. Now, we were cunningly disguised as Canadians, rather than flagged as South Africans. Surely, we would fly under the radar? Well actually, as it turned out, not so much.

Picture it. We have to fill out these customs declaration forms. The fiancée suggests that she and I fill out separate forms. I say that’s ridiculous, because we’re a family. We’ve been together three years, we co-habit, and we’re engaged. She’s the stepparent of my girls. We’re a family, obviously.

And so we are. Until, that is, we step across the red line onto “American soil” at Vancouver International Airport.

In case you’ve never had the pleasure of discovering this, there is a little slice of Vancouver airport that is forever the USA. You are alerted to this by huge signs saying “Welcome to the USA.”

Real live Americans sit behind booths with signs that say something to the effect that they are the Face of America. Unfortunately, all of the Faces of America are exceedingly grim.

The message is clear: they are not there to welcome you to America; they are there to keep the unwelcome out of the hallowed land.

I start to sweat as soon as I step up to the line, suspecting that my little family, which is ever so welcome in East Van, may be less than welcome in the hallowed land. Did I mention my family is multiracial as well as lesbian?

The customs agent we get looks a lot like a dung beetle. Coincidentally, she looks at us as if we smell like dung. We step across the line timidly, venturing into the USA in all our Dyke-Family splendour.

The dung beetle peers at us in the same way Will Smith peers at the giant bug in Men in Black — through narrowed eyes that say quite clearly, “Not in my USA. NOSIRREE!” Immediately, I know we’re screwed.

“What is the relationship here?” she barks.

I realize that up close, she resembles an English bulldog more than a dung beetle. A really bad-tempered English bulldog.

“Um… We’re a family,” I stammer.

“What is the relationship here?” she barks again, as if she does not have enough English to understand my reply.

“She’s my fiancée, and these are my children,” I venture helpfully, hoping to break through the language barrier by offering more details.

As an ESL expert, I know that this is a more useful tactic than simply yelling the same thing more loudly. And I can tell just by looking at her that the border agent wouldn’t appreciate yelling very much. Middle-aged lesbians are more sensitive than you might think.

“Engaged is not married,” she snarls. Then she informs us: “You are not a family.”

She glares at me and the children as if she’d like to take us out with a ray gun. “You, step back behind the line.”

My children and I stumble back behind the red line. We’re back in Canada. I have to say, I like it much better here.

The snarling Face of America processes the fiancée quickly and disdainfully. Then my children and I are ordered to step back into the USA.

She demands our customs declaration form. I tell her that the fiancée did one for all of us. Of course, that won’t do.

I need a separate form because now that we’re in the USA we’re not a family anymore, and the fiancée’s custom declaration form is therefore irrelevant.

“No problem, I’ll fill out another one,” I say politely, albeit through clenched teeth.

“You can’t fill it out here. You’re not allowed to fill it out here. You have to go back to the duty-free.” And with that she waves a lead pipe of an arm, dismissing us back to our country of origin.

“You mean we have to go all the way back to the end of the line?” I ask pitifully, not moving.

“Yes. NEXT!” she bellows, with such force that it is a wonder the children and I are not sent tumbling head-over-heels.

Stunned, we stumble back to Canada. The 7-year-old is distraught, thinking we’re not going to Disneyland after all. At this point, I’d be happy to blow it off. But I’m committed: the kids would be too disappointed if I stalked away now.

Not to mention how pissed off the fiancée would be if we fail to cross the red line, leaving her all alone in the USA.

I explain to the children: “We’re still going to Disneyland. The problem is, the price for that is we have to go the USA.”

I fill out the form on a box in a bottle store in the duty-free, trying to write while fending off the 7-year-old who is teetering on the verge of hysteria, and then we take our place at the back of the line.

This time we manage to get past a (different) border agent. He looks disapprovingly at my haircut and is grudging about it, but he does let us in.

We rejoin the fortunately unflappable fiancée and head for the Maple Leaf Lounge, where a glass of decent white wine in a reassuringly Canadian setting makes me feel strong enough to get on a plane and head for the USA —bracing myself for the dread possibility of an entire country of homophobes.

I remember the sign on the dung beetle’s booth: “The Face of America.” God, I hope not.