I walked with purpose, my boots hitting the floor in a tempo that echoed my urgency. My mouth was dry and anxiety had sunk into the creases on my face. My family walked behind me, no one daring to talk in case my composure collapsed. I knew where to go and what to do. In my hand — now sweaty — I gripped an unassuming brown envelope that carried my family’s future in it. Our Canadian immigration papers.
It was just after midnight in early March 2007. We were walking down a wide hallway from the plane into Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, towards a glass window with signs directing new immigrants inside. We entered the room and went to the last counter that was open, handed our papers over to a small woman who, in a matter of fact way, stamped our papers, took our photographs and confirmed our permanent resident status before shuffling us toward customs. Like it was nothing.
It didn’t register right away that we were basically home free. Less than an hour later we walked out of the airport. We were tired but exhilarated — the relief was palpable. Only then could I let myself breathe. We hugged: me, my partner Tamara and our two boys. But it was Sebastian, our eldest son, who stirred up the emotion in all of us when he stopped and, referring back to the immigration officer said, “Mum, I like this country. That was the first time we have ever been called a family.”
Walking out of the airport that night, stamped papers in hand, was the last step on a journey that began when I first came out as a lesbian in Lusaka, Zambia in 1993. At 30 years old, I left a seven-year marriage and, with two young sons, embraced my sexual orientation in a country where proven incidents of homosexual conduct could land you in jail for up to 40 years.
It was then that I began my search for a place that my family could call home. It was a journey that, when I met my partner Tamara, turned epic. It took us from Zambia via the United States to Canada.
My partner is American and I am Zambian. We have been together for 12 years and have raised two sons — we are a family in our eyes, in our friends’ eyes, in the eyes of the Canadian government — but not according to the Zambian or United States governments. There, we have no status and no chance of living as a couple or a family.
“We considered a marriage between Noreen and my gay brother but what kind of a message is that to give your children?” says Tam when people ask her about other options. “Trying to teach them tolerance and pride, telling them there is nothing to be ashamed of — but, you need to lie to the social workers, your teachers, just about everyone.”
When it came down to it, living in the US was a short-term answer to a lifelong commitment. My sons and I moved there from Zambia in 2000 knowing that the chances of living there permanently depended heavily on the political climate. After four years of living together in the US, with no recognition as a couple or a family in sight, we applied to immigrate to Canada — something we later learned is a common strategy for binational same-sex couples.
The decision was wrought with emotion. Tam was devastated that she would have to leave the US, her family and her job. In turn, I was angry that, as a queer couple, we had to pay a high price for living in the US — higher taxes because Tam was considered a single person, $20,000 a year in university fees in order to keep my student visa. There was no possibility of socking away any money with a family of four living on one salary and with no idea of what the future held.
In the end, it was the boys’ future and our desire to see them in a welcoming environment that caused us to buckle down and start the lengthy application process. We spent months completing paperwork and pooling family funds. After the application was in, we waited anxiously for two years until we were finally accepted as permanent residents of Canada.
By Aug 11, 2008, we were ready to finally move. We packed the last of our things in a minivan and headed off to Canada, leaving behind our friends and our community in Carrboro, North Carolina. It was one of the hardest things that I have ever done — to leave friends who had become like family to us. Leaving them was, and still is, a harsh reminder of the sacrifices we have made in order to be accepted as a family. Though we’re certainly not the only ones.
According to a 2006 US census report, there are approximately 35,800 binational queer couples in America. Unlike heterosexual couples, who have both social recognition and the legal option to marry, these queer couples will be looking at ways to remain together. American immigration activists have come to recommend that families with one US partner and one international partner move to Canada. Groups like Immigration Equality now offer resources for queer Americans seeking to take the plunge.
For many of these queer couples, leaving their home country is a difficult step but, for Glen Tig and Chitpol Siddihivarn, it was more than that — it was a personal disaster.
Tig and Siddihivarn met in 2000 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Siddihivarn came from Thailand on a visiting scholar’s visa to complete his PhD in oral biology. After two years of living together, they realized they had no reliable way of staying together in the US and applied to immigrate to Canada.
Tig and Siddihivarn became permanent residents of Canada in 2003 but continued living in the US so that Siddihivarn could finish his doctoral work at the University of North Carolina. When Siddihivarn went to the American consulate in Toronto to request a final extension to his student visa, his passport was taken and his visa cancelled.
This catapulted the couple into six months of chaos. Instead of having six months to plan their move — as they first anticipated — they had mere weeks.
The timing of the move and the move itself cost them both emotionally and financially. Tig was undergoing medical procedures in North Carolina to treat an aggressive form of bladder cancer, and his mother was coping with a life-threatening illness. She died while they were in Canada and Siddihivarn was not able to cross the border to pay his respects or to support Tig through her funeral.
“When we were cast out, all hell broke loose on many, many fronts,” says Tig. “We were dealing with the PhD limitation, we were dealing with finances, we were dealing with cancer, death, all of it. Shockwaves of that are still going on.”
The unexpected expenses that came with the move nearly ruined them financially — they sold their house, emptied every bank account, ran up credit card debt, borrowed money from friends and sold land they had hoped to build on in the future. None of these expenses would have been incurred if they were a heterosexual couple.
“It is specifically related to being gay. It is specifically related to not having another option available to us that straight people have available to them,” says Tig.
The US government doesn’t recognize any gay couples as couples (even for those married in one of the six US states where it’s legal). In contrast, Canada recognized gay common-law partnerships in 2000 and same-sex marriage in 2005. Canada also has a (relatively) liberal immigration policy.
For Tig and Siddihivarn, their first months in Toronto were enlightening. As new immigrants, they got driver’s licenses, OHIP cards and social insurance numbers, rented an apartment and opened bank accounts — all openly as a couple, without anyone questioning their relationship.
“We were treated with so much ordinariness, there were no people looking away with their eyes, there was no gulping,” says Tig. “Everybody just assumed that we were a couple.”
Tig and Siddihivarn adjusted to the “ordinariness” of being a gay couple in Canada — they became citizens in 2007 and married in 2008. They have since moved to Vancouver and Siddihivarn is doing his residency at UBC. Tig still travels back to North Carolina where he continues with his private therapy practice. However, in their private lives, they prefer to keep the story of their immigration exodus to themselves.
“Gay people don’t understand it, straight people don’t understand it,” says Tig. “It’s just beyond belief that, for our segment of the population, the liberties, freedoms and acknowledgment we get here are so profoundly significant, and the problems of being forced to leave the country you are born into are so disturbing.”
There are only 19 countries in the world — including Canada — that have queer-friendly immigration laws. South of the border, in a country that professes to be a leader in human rights, the majority of Americans cannot fathom the immigration problems that queer couples have to face.
“I guess I have been shocked at people’s ignorance,” says Susan Jessup, a US citizen looking to make Canada her new home. “I was ignorant too before I was put into this situation. Some [people] get that Canada is this gay haven, but other people don’t understand.”
Susan Jessup and Adi Shimoni have been together for four years. They are looking to move to Canada as a way out of their immigration quagmire. Shimoni, an Israeli, came to the US to complete her Master’s degree in occupational therapy and then transferred her status to a work visa. Although she and Jessup have hired multiple lawyers and sought new jobs in the US, Shimoni’s visa is only valid for six years. She has one year left before she is required to leave the country.
Initially, Shimoni explored the option of getting a green card through her employer, The Children’s Developmental Services Agency (CDSA). The CDSA agreed to sponsor her and contributed US$2500 towards the application. However, one of the requirements for obtaining a green card is that the applicant shows he or she has extraordinary skills and makes the prevailing wage set by the federal government. Shimoni’s income fell just below the stipulated amount and, because of budget cuts, the organization was unwilling to commit to writing a letter stating they would increase Shimoni’s wage by US$2000 annually.
“They [the CDSA] were unwilling to see it as an immigration issue,” says Jessup. “They could not get past the fact that it looked like a salary increase.”
With the unexpected obstacle in their way, they did what many binational queer couples in the US do — looked for other alternatives, chose what sacrifices to make and decided how to move on together.
Fed up with their lives being on hold, and willing to take the jump, Shimoni and Jessup have started their application to immigrate to Canada.
“Our whole lives have been uprooted, and we don’t want to walk through this process again,” says Jessup. “I have never lived in another country, so for me that will be a whole new experience. I am scared — I am 42 years old and I feel that I am going to be starting all over again.”
For Shimoni and Jessup, the immigration application will be relatively straightforward — they are both skilled professionals and meet Canada’s immigration requirements.
But for other gay couples wanting to come to Canada the process may be harder. Since November 2008, applicants have had to meet tough new prerequisites before their application will even be considered.
The immigration process is long, hard and the outcome uncertain. But for so many of us who have gone through it and been accepted, it means a new lease on life — a new beginning.
Despite the nightmare of uprooting our lives, for us, at least it was worth it. It is just over one year since we arrived in Canada. Sebastian is in university and our youngest son is in his last year of high school. Tam kept her job in the US and telecommutes from home when she is not travelling. I know where I am going, what I am doing and I walk towards my future with a purpose. I am happy — we are in a place we call home and on a journey to rebuild and establish ourselves in a new community.