Note to Reader:
This essay was a submission to a contest that I did not win. I was recently having a chat online about immigration issues and the person suggested I post our experience. It still exhausts me to think about the process it took for my husband and I to remain together and perhaps that is why I am so guarded about it although I will speak about it when asked. After thinking about it, just as this person had shared their experience, it became apparent that until we have human faces and human stories then we will fail to see the lack of humanity in immigration policies and believe biased media reports about immigrants.
The political landscape has changed significantly in both the US and the UK since I wrote this; not for the better either. So much of the optimism of those days is tested on a daily basis.
What hasn’t changed is the experience of individual immigrants and the hurdles we pass to remain in our chosen countries. What hasn't changed is that hope still guides so many of us from day to day.
J Lugo-Trebble , Cornwall, 06.04.18
By: John Lugo-Trebble
David yelled from downstairs...."We won!!!" I ran down the stairs to the lounge and he grabbed me. He wrapped his arms around me and we jumped up and down, kissing each other, smiling. His hazel green eyes shone like emeralds that glistened with the joyful tears forming in his eyes. I could feel my body go weak and as David grabbed his phone to post messages on Facebook, I collapsed onto the armchair and let out a lifetime of frustration in tears. That lifetime of inequality finally gave way to promise, to hope, to the possibility of an American Dream. We wanted to celebrate and there was only one place for us to go here in our small village of Goldsithney in Cornwall, so we got into our car and drove to the village pub to celebrate. The pub may have been empty but with the addition of champagne and David wrapped in a Rainbow flag we partied. It didn't matter that we weren't in Soho, in the Village or in the Castro. At that moment, across the pond, we were finally equal. My country finally accepted my husband. My country finally gave me the choice to go home if I wanted to take it.
How does a Puerto Rican boy from The Bronx come to live in the very Southwest of the United Kingdom? The short answer is love. I first met David in a club off Oxford Street in 1998 when I was travelling around after graduation. He tried to talk me, I told him to fuck off. There was no romance that night but something was set in motion because two years later in New York City at Splash bar, one Musical Monday night, David saw me again. The following week I saw him and I couldn't keep my eyes off him. Thing is, he was with friends, I was with friends and neither of us would abandon our friends. As we were leaving the bar, a friend of mine initiated conversation by shouting in David's direction “Hey Cute Boy, over here!" He then ran off leaving me to be the only one David saw when he turned around. David walked towards me with his cheeky smile and beautiful eyes. He was going for another drink and invited me to join him but I had drunk too much and had to be at work early so we swapped phone numbers to arrange dinner or drinks soon. He then asked me for a goodnight kiss. My body convulsed with delight. I became lost in his lips. He then looked down at me (he is 6'4", I am 5'11") and asked “so have I tempted you for that drink then?” I nodded. We went onto Pieces in the village. I never made it to work the next day and within weeks David and I were living together. Our relationship was in the fast lane because he was only on assignment in NYC and at any moment could be recalled back to London
Four months into our relationship the final call came (we'd already used up his one favour with his NY bosses a couple of months previously when the first call to go back came) and with it, decisions had to be made. Love brought us together but inequality would take me to the UK. In the year 2000, no one could imagine the immense gains that we would have today. Although we knew that things were slowly changing in Scandinavia, The Netherlands, and the UK; things were moving at a slower pace in the US. No, America was not ready yet. Being a gay American who falls in love with a foreigner is to feel excluded even more than you already feel as a gay person. I boarded that plane from NYC to London in August 2000 with a belief in love, a hope that we would make it. I had no job, no legal right to stay in the UK, and my cashed out 401K. David was going to have to support us both. We made an initial plan to stay for 3-6 months on the promise from David's employers of sorting out David's green card to return as soon as the "urgent" requirement back in London was dealt with. We could do it. We were in love. Love conquers all.
In the winter, David nearly died of meningitis. He was rushed into surgery one Sunday morning to have his inner ear removed because of a cholesteatoma that was only days away from killing him. I was not allowed as his partner into the hospital or to make any decisions concerning his care until his parents signed a waiver that I was his next of kin, something they did without even a second thought. This option would never be available to us in the US but in the UK, there was progress. David lost his hearing on one side and with the removal of his inner ear now had balance and nerve damages issues with a long recovery period. Seven months later after many attempts at returning to work, David had to leave his employment as it was clear that his bosses had no interest in supporting the medical expertise on how he should return to work. It was becoming clear that New York could no longer be an option unless we found him a woman to marry. This was not an option for us. We have both been out and proud since we were teenagers. Why would we lie? Why should we? Part of us still believed that in doing the right thing, love would find a way.
Luckily for us the UK had the option of the Unmarried Partners Act of 1999. This allowed foreign same sex partners of UK citizens to apply to stay in the UK if they could prove they had been together for two years. Love would push us through. That is what you have to believe when you are in your twenties, that love can conquer all. What love doesn't tell you is how two people can survive on one salary, then no salary as the loss of hearing made David's position at the company he worked at untenable. Months after his surgery, we had no income and made some decisions based on our belief in love, our destiny that we were meant to be together. We had no money for rent, so we squatted in our flat. We ran up every credit card available. Our phone was shut off, we went out mainly due to the kindness of our friends and by following club and drink promotions like addicts after their next fix.
Our financial situation was dire but we tried to find a way because that is what love inspires in you. It is what makes you believe in tomorrow. A few weeks later, David was in talks with a number of international companies over job opportunities. Maybe one of these could lead us back to New York City? He had his final interview with one that was particularly promising. The date was Sept. 11 2001, needless to say that with the tragedy and ensuing chaos, all job opportunities suddenly vanished. David finally found a new job on 40% less than he was earning before but still a lot more than the zero we had been surviving on. It would be tough but we'd make it work. Love would make it work. We were also given an eviction notice from our squat. We found a flat south of the river with a college friend of David's. David's new job required travel. It was fourteen months since we had left NYC and I was on my own more times than not. I couldn't work. The novel I had written had been rejected which led to further depression. Our roommate situation was less than ideal and we were just waiting till we fulfilled the time requirement to apply for me to stay in the UK. The whole time just watching the clock tick slowly.
I had always followed the terms of my tourist visa by leaving the UK before my six months had expired, including , purchasing a return ticket to the US to prove that I had a means to get back. Shortly before being able to apply for my first visa we had been at home when I decided to have a look at my passport and realised I needed to leave the UK within 24 hours. We booked a last minute trip for one night to Paris via the Eurostar. It was all we could afford. We didn't even have money for a hotel. We partied all night and then drank coffee in the early hours of a cafe in the Marais awaiting the first train back to London. At this point, tensions were beginning to run very high between the UK and France over border controls and so the UK had installed immigration officers in Paris to pre-screen arrivals before departures to London. By this time, I had been in the UK going on near two years and immersed in London surrounded by Brits. My accent had started to change and as a result the immigration officer did not believe I was on a tourist visa. I joked about how I spent a lot of time with my best friend (pointing at David). The officer handed me my passport and indifferently said, "explain it to them in London." The words hit me like a punch to the stomach.
David and I boarded that train convinced that I would be detained at Waterloo and deported back to the US. We held hands the entire time. Both of us were holding back our tears and trying to comfort the other, as we sped through the Kent countryside after exiting the tunnel on that bright sunny morning. All we could feel was impending doom.
At Waterloo, I approached the immigration officer with my best remembered New York accent. She asked me for my return ticket. I showed her the ticket dated for three days time. She stamped my passport, smiled and that was it. I could have fainted on sight with relief but instead I ran towards an anxiously awaiting David and we collapsed into each other's arms. We hugged as if our life depended on it. I passed the initial hurdle to remain in the UK. We were on our way.
The time came to apply for my first visa and with the help of a very good attorney, we put together an arch lever file full of documentation that contained statements from us, post sent to addresses we had lived at, vacation tickets, photos showing us as a happy couple and statements from friends and families as to the validity of our relationship. Our friends and families wrote some lovely testaments to the nature of our relationship. David's grandfather, an Army Cadet in the Second World War probably wrote the most touching letter of them all. We both resented having to have these statements to justify our relationship. and the feeling of our life being invaded by faceless men in grey suits. Bottom line though, we needed them to get the right stamp in my passport. After all this was sent off, along with mine and David's passport, we waited again.
Emotions were running high by this point. We were exhausted. The financial strain took its toll on us. Our living situation was less than ideal. Also, David needed the immediate return of his passport to travel internationally so that meant taking time off of work to go to the Home Office and retrieve his passport without disqualifying my application. His job meant that two days on a client site could easily turn into two weeks, and I was unable to travel to be with him. We were apart and lonely. We didn't believe there was an end to it as weeks turned into months and the newspaper reported constant back logs on immigration applications.
My initial application was not immediately accepted. It was sent ahead for further investigation which meant that we would need to provide more details. Our attorney advised us to write to the local MP, he too wrote to the Home Office. About a week later, without any further explanation of the initial "further investigation" decision, I was granted my initial two year visa to remain in the UK. David was away at the time so we couldn't even celebrate. When he finally did come home, we were both sulky about an argument that we had had. Till this day, I can't remember what the actual argument was about but what I do remember is that when we should have been celebrating, we were not.
My initial visa meant that I could finally look for work. As I had previously worked for a publishing house in NYC, it made sense to look for similar opportunities in London. Now came the next hurdle, explaining to potential employers why I had been out of the work force for two years. This of course meant having to effectively come out at the interview stage. I have been lucky to always work in relatively gay friendly industries so in practice it was not a big deal but in principle it was again one of those reminders of the inequalities we face. The other issue was that most available jobs were at entry level. That said, we were looking forward to having a two income house again, for the first time since we had lived in NYC.
Returning to work brought with it a whole new host of adjustments. My new role involved having to attend work events most evenings depending on the time of year and so this ate into our personal time. David's star was ascending in his career and so he was out networking. To sum it up, we actually saw less of each other and when we did, we were tired and irritable.
A year later, our relationship broke down. The trouble is, the terms of my visa did not allow for us to legally be apart without fear of revocation. We had to reach a compromise, to leave options open because if my visa was revoked, there would be no options available to us. At that time, I was unsure about staying in the UK, but I knew that I needed time and space.
I took a brief trip back to NYC (my last one for seven years) to spend time with friends and clear my head. I felt so disconnected. I had had a life in the city before I met David. I am a born and bred New Yorker, I had decades of memories but everywhere I looked, I saw him. All I could think about were those four months we had lived together in the city. I not only missed him but I also realized that the city was no longer home, London was. Upon my return to London, I met up with David the same night. We started to see each other again regularly and it wasn't long before we were together again.
Thing about David and I is that underlying every obstacle we faced has always been a knowledge that we belong together. We were still working things out when my permanent visa was finally issued. This meant that immigration wise, we were done and we had the scars to prove it. The year was now 2004.
In 2006, six months after the UK passed the Civil Partnership Act, David and I became civil partners in an intimate ceremony surrounded by family and friends, and then celebrated with nearly 100 guests at a reception. I was on crutches as I had injured myself in a scooter accident in Greece a month prior to our ceremony. David and I were now husbands in all but name. That was the compromise of the Civil Partnership Act, we had at the face of it the rights of married couples but not allowed to be called married. The Civil Partnership was also not accepted for any immigration purposes by any other countries because it was not a marriage. For all the inequalities it addressed, it created more in the process. The US was still far from having something similar that we could use to move back to the US. To be honest, by this time I had given up on the idea of ever returning to the US. I would joke with friends that I was an exile not an expat.
It was around this time that I really started to resent the US. I began to resent the US for not giving me the same equality it did my straight friends. I resented not being able to see my sister and watch my nephew grow up. I resented the conservative views being expunged out of mouths as if they were broken sewage drains. I truly believed that nothing would change on a Federal level. State progress was good, but not for us, we needed Federal change in order for the law to apply to us as a couple.
As a result, I embraced being in the UK. I was proud to live in a country where we were able to be together without having to lie about who we are. There was a real feeling of hope and promise in the UK at that time, so much so that even average Brits wondered what the problem with the US was. It made no sense to them. A year after our civil partnership, I became a UK citizen.
By 2012, we were based in Berlin for business reasons. I had left publishing a few years before and then moved onto working at a University before I joined David's IT Consultancy firm as an Administrative Director. This move gave us the freedom to work and live anywhere.
Tragedy struck us two fold in Berlin. Our cat Bonnie had lost her second battle with cancer. Our civil partnership disintegrated. We both loved each other but we had some serious issues that needed to be addressed. We both fell apart and decided to individually return to the UK. By chance, we ended up 40 miles away from each other in Cornwall. This move allowed us the space to eventually find our way back to one another. We both did some soul searching, entered therapy and above all renewed the belief that our love could conquer anything. This time though, we would not lose sight of that again. We decided to draw a line and board a flight to NYC to get married. New York State had passed marriage equality and the world was beginning to look very different not just personally but politically. For us, it felt right to go back to where we had gotten together, to where we started. We didn't even tell our friends until the night before. In the end, David and I were married in the Supreme Court of the State of New York by Justice MIlton A. Tingling on December 23, 2013. Justice Tingling had asked us to say in our own words what it meant to us, this moment. David looked into my eyes, tears of joy streaming down, smile beaming from ear to ear and said "I've waited so long for this moment." Justice Tingling then echoed these words in the courtroom repeating to both of us, "It HAS been too long!" Our witnesses were a lesbian couple named Sonny and Gretchen who had flown up from Florida to get married. We had met them on line at the County Clerk's office. They had been together the same amount of time we had and like us, needed judicial waivers. We agreed to be each other's witnesses. Our story had made its way around the Clerk's office and so by the end of the day, we had become mini celebrities. David and I hadn't gone to the trouble of getting all dressed up but when we kissed after being married, we felt like we had finally arrived.
All the happiness though did not change our legal predicament. We were now married under New York State law, but not under UK law as the Marriage Act (this allowed Civil Partners to convert their partnerships to marriages) did not come into effect till March 2014, and despite DOMA being struck down, inequality still persisted. The inequality that had taken us abroad, still kept us abroad. The thing is, despite all of this, our love survived, our love continued to grow. Despite the hurdles, it carried us through the storm.
Having lived abroad now for over 15 years, you get used to many assumptions about Americans, many opinions about Americans and of course questions. One of the questions that comes up is about the American Dream. What is it? Is it money? Is it fame? Is it success? I always answer no to those. Those are by products of the American Dream. The American Dream is the promise of tomorrow. It is a promise that things will get better because they have too. The Supreme Court of the United States reaffirmed this with their ruling this year.
With the ban on Same Sex Marriages being struck down, it sent a clear message that tomorrow IS a better day for LGBT Americans both at home and abroad. Their ruling gave us options just like heterosexual Americans. Their ruling means that love has no borders. Their ruling means that those of us abroad are no longer exiles, that we finally had the option to return home with our soul mates.
The Supreme Court ruling means that David and I won. That our journey as long as it has been, has political meaning. That we are counted. That we are finally equal. That we matter. That our love won.