Otts Bolisay and Ken Thompson were mutually smitten but timid when they met through mutual friends in the summer of 2000, so they didn't truly connect until bumping into each other at a Halloween party later that year. With Thompson dressed as a sailor and Bolisay wearing a "harem girl" costume, they formed a natural pair. They have been madly in love ever since, a model couple sharing a cozy home on Beacon Hill with two cats.
Under normal circumstances, their fairy tale might end happily ever after. Instead, owing to the proposed immigration reforms currently before Congress, Bolisay and Thompson will likely face a heart-wrenching decision in the coming year: They must choose whether to separate or leave Seattle and live together abroad in indefinite exile.
Bolisay, 40, who is of Filipino descent but hails from the Bahamas, lives in the United States on a temporary work visa that expires next year. If their relationship was a hetero marriage, Thompson, 47, could sponsor Bolisay for a green card or petition US Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a provisional waiver that would let him stay after his visa expires. But, because the federal government does not recognize same-sex partnerships, the couple is stuck counting down the days until Bolisay is either forced to leave or remains in the country illegally, risking deportation and hefty fines.
"Our situation is this: In 17 months, we will have no country to live in together as a couple," Bolisay explains. "Basically, we can get married here, the State of Washington will sanction our marriage, but the United States won't actually let us live here."
At a US Senate hearing on May 21, Senator Patrick Leahy proposed an amendment to the immigration bill (officially called the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act) that would have reversed the federal policy on same-sex, binational couples like Bolisay and Thompson. "I do not believe we should ask Americans to choose between the love of their life and love of their country," said Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont. "Discriminating against a segment of Americans because of who they love is a travesty, and it is ripping many American families apart."
Researchers at UCLA and the Center for American Progress estimate that there are at least 267,000 LGBT-identified individuals among the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. Approximately 24,700 same-sex couples are binational (one US citizen and one noncitizen), along with 11,700 gay couples of two noncitizens. Nearly 7,000 same-sex couples that include noncitizens are raising an estimated 12,400 children under age 18.
Naturally, Senate conservatives, led by Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, immediately vowed to oppose the entire immigration package. Graham condemned "redefining marriage for immigration purposes" and called Leahy's amendment "a bridge too far." Four Democrats, including former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein, cowed to Graham's bluster and forced Leahy to withdraw his antidiscrimination proposal just half an hour after he introduced it.
Thompson was at the airport when he heard the news. "My heart fell, and I might have cried if I'd been someplace less public," he says. "You'd think I'd be used to this, but it really hurts every time."
For Bolisay, the turn of events was extraordinarily bittersweet. He works as a communications specialist for the immigrant rights group OneAmerica, so it was no small irony that he and Thompson ended up as collateral damage in a compromise that may have ultimately paved the way for a long-awaited revamping of the nation's immigration laws. (On June 24, the Senate voted 67–27 to approve a plan that devotes roughly $30 billion to added border-enforcement measures, another compromise to build bipartisan support.)
"It was very sad," Bolisay says. "It's odd to feel something so critical to your life is being decided by this group of people far away who very often have no idea what's best for you or people like you."
The failure of Leahy's amendment was a letdown for the burgeoning alliance between LGBT and immigrant-rights activists. While the two movements have long been simpatico, strategic collaboration began only recently. Thompson, a board member on the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, recalls noticing the shift while campaigning for Referendum 74 last year to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington State.
"In the beginning, it was all about this is the right thing to do, we're brethren," Thompson says. "People felt that way for a long time. Then I felt there was a group of [LGBT] movement leaders whose switch to embrace the coalition has been more calculating... the lightbulb went on in people's heads that it wasn't just the right thing to do—it was actually the path to victory."
Last year, the LGBT organization Equality Maryland joined forces with the immigrant group Casa de Maryland to help win referendums on same-sex marriage and in-state tuition for undocumented students. Equality Maryland executive director Carrie Evans says she had trepidation about trying to convince gays to help subsidize immigrant education.
"We didn't know what the reaction of the community and our supporters would be," Evans says. "I'm an eternal pessimist. I thought people would be like, 'What the hell? What are you doing this for? This isn't a gay issue.' We had a couple supporters who were like that, but the overwhelming majority were very encouraging."
The difference maker, Evans says, was recruiting four teenagers who were both gay and undocumented to serve as poster children for their cause. Nationally, "undocuqueers" have assumed key leadership roles in both the LGBT and the immigrant movements. Jorge Gutierrez, a 29-year-old project coordinator for the Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project, part of the organization United We Dream, describes overcoming the double burden of coming out as gay in a traditionally Catholic community and also putting himself at risk by outing his undocumented status.
"We see oppression and discrimination in our own community," Gutierrez says. "That creates resiliency. It's not a coincidence that our leaders, those at the forefront, are both [gay and undocumented]. We know the urgency of fighting for our rights and standing up for our humanity."
The impact of gay and immigrant voters in the 2012 election prompted some moderate Republicans to soften their positions on immigration and gay marriage. But any optimism sparked by that shift was quickly extinguished when Leahy and the Democrats failed to call the GOP's bluff on threats to scuttle the entire immigration overhaul over same-sex, binational couples.
Bolisay says the "Sí, se puede" cheers that followed the Senate committee's approval of the immigration bill spawned conflicting feelings. "Would we really ruin it for everybody else?" Bolisay asks. "It's all that homophobia you're feeling coming to the surface and saying, 'If we're really going to derail this whole thing, maybe we shouldn't have even been present in the first place.'"
The remote possibility remains that the House or Senate could reintroduce Leahy's amendment, and the Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act could also benefit same-sex couples battling the immigration bureaucracy. In the meantime, Bolisay and Thompson are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.
Bolisay can renew his temporary H-1B work visa, but only if he leaves the country and has an employer willing to hire him a year in advance—a dicey proposition. Their relationship survived a yearlong separation when Bolisay's previous visa expired in 2007, but this time, Thompson may accompany him to the Bahamas or they might try emigrating, perhaps to one of the 14 countries that currently recognize same-sex unions.
Remarkably, even with the bitterness over their exclusion, both Bolisay and Thompson are still generally supportive of the Senate's immigration proposal.
"I'm tremendously happy about the good things in the legislation," Thompson says, "including the path to citizenship, and protections for LGB and trans folks who are in [federal immigration] detention centers. We'll see if that all stays in. Fingers crossed."
UPDATE: The Supreme Court decision on DOMA will likely force the federal government to recognize same-sex, binational couples in immigration cases. In fact, just hours after the ruling was handed down, an immigration judge in New York blocked the deportation of a Colombian man married to a gay American citizen. For Bolisay and Thompson, the future suddenly looks very bright.
"Ken was crying and I was and still am," Bolisay says, describing his reaction after the Supreme Court's decision. "I don't know if shock is the right word, but it's still sinking in. Yes, of course we're going to get married. It's just a matter of when."
Unfortunately, immigrants from states that do not currently allow same-sex marriages—including Texas, Arizona, Florida, and other states with large immigrant populations—may still face discrimination under the law. Jorge Baron, director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, says US Immigration and Customs Enforcement will probably recognize all same-sex unions, regardless of state laws. However, these immigrants still face the burden of traveling to another state in order to get married.
"Some states have different rules about waiting periods, you may need to get a license and wait a period of time," Baron explains. "We're still not in a place where it's total equality but this is obviously a big step forward for binational, same-sex couples. This is a good day. We're very excited."