One important component of LGIRTF is education. Educating the public is crucial because some U.S. citizens don't even realize gay people's lack of civil rights. "There were actually people when I first got here who asked if Leslie and I couldn't just get married," An says in disbelief. "There are still heterosexual people out there who think we can get married. It's unreal." Leslie says it's important for people to understand that if gay couples could marry, "most of the hassle and stress (not to mention all the legal bills) would be eradicated."
NoteWhen this article was written gay and lesbian couples could not get married anywhere in the United States. Even with same-sex marriages now legal in several states, immigration laws still only allow heterosexual couples to sponsor a spouse.
In heterosexual partnerships, when you marry your foreign partner, a green card is a matter of paperwork. Once a green card is issued, the foreign partner can live and work anywhere they choose. The only distinguishing difference from another citizen is they aren't allowed to vote. Green cards allow a person "permanent residency status." Unlike this ticket to stay in America, all other Visas are "temporary residency status."
"You can't imagine what kind of confusion the immigration system is until you plunge headlong into it," notes Leslie, who has had a difficult time getting straight answers about their situation. Hiring a lawyer who specializes in immigration has been their sharpest vantage, but lawyers don't come cheap. "It's ridiculous that my partner and I have to struggle to live together in this country. The US is so far behind other countries in allowing immigration rights for same-sex couples, it's practically embarrassing." The thought of An's Visa being denied is almost too much for these women. "I've lived here for four and a half years and they expect me to be able to fly out in 10 days," says An, irritated. And even if it is extended, "What will happen in another three years?" The limit on an H-1B visa is six years. In planning for the worst, Leslie has decided that if the Visa is denied or they are out of options in a few years, she will move to Belgium with her partner, where the laws allow them to be together.
On Valentine's Day 2003, the couple publicly paid homage to their love while raising awareness of the injustices in the immigration system. Valentine's Day coincided with the re-introduction to Congress of the Permanent Partner's Immigration Act (PPIA). An act that if passed, the words 'or permanent partner' would be added everywhere 'spouse' is referred to in immigration law. Which, An said, "would solve all our problems." The ironic coincidence motivated the couple to dress-up as a heart and the Statue of Liberty and stand outside the Federal Immigration and Naturalization building in downtown Portland. The Statue of Liberty is the symbol of LGIRTF and represents a woman escaping the chains of tyranny.
On the downtown busy corner, the members of LGIRTF, including the costumed couple, engaged with passersby, handed out candy hearts with information about the PPIA and the current discrimination. Even though federal employees walking by are unable to take handouts from protesters, many said under their breath that they supported the act, what the LGIRTF is doing and to keep up the good work.