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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Supreme sacrifice

This is a story that goes to the heart of how I became The Discreet Traveler. It is played out in the U.S. Supreme Court. Who is a citizen, and whether there are different classes of citizens with different rights, are decisions that in our democracy have ultimately come to the Court.

Tomorrow, or Friday or Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States will reveal end-of-term decisions. Two of the most eagerly awaited cases have the potential to affect many lives. In Burwell v. King, SCOTUS could rule that the federal government's provision of health care (in states that haven't set up their own exchanges under the Affordable Care Act) is unconstitutional, gutting "Obamacare" for millions of people.

Obergefell v. Hodges is "the same-sex marriage case." Here, SCOTUS could rule that there is a fundamental right to marry, opening the door to marriage equality across all the States. Or it could simply rule that states have to recognize marriages that have been performed in other states--which would be constitutionally obvious in any case that didn't involve gay people.

Or the Court could give a disappointing ruling and rain on the Pride Parade.

I remember two years ago, Pride Week in June, and the Supreme Court's decision that ruled part of the "Defense of Marriage Act" unconstitutional (part of it remains in force, but could be overturned by Obergefell). That day, the door was opened to Americans who wanted to return to the U.S. with their non-American spouses. It's bittersweet to be in London this week, missing some of the couples who marched in 2013's Parade. They've gone home, because they can.

("Home" is a slippery concept, for me more than for most. It may not be home for the foreign partners. But in America as in other advanced countries, it's often assumed that everyone would live in the United States, if they only had the opportunity.)

The thing about Court cases is that, as the names imply, they're always about individual people. Bush v. Gore. Obergefell v. Hodges. Perhaps most dauntingly, the DOMA case: United States v. Windsor. Edith Windsor is a real person, and she won, against the most powerful nation on earth.

James Obergefell was married to John Arthur, who died of ALS. But in their state, Ohio, same-sex marriage isn't recognized. The State of Ohio insists that these two men were legal strangers.

The Obergefell case, consolidated with other cases in the 6th Circuit, is about bringing marriage equality to states that do not recognize it: Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennesssee. And here is where The Discreet Traveler comes in. Because TDT was born and raised in Tennessee, and although it's been many years since I lived in the U.S., it's still the state where I am registered to vote, as a U.S. citizen.

It will make no practical difference to my life, personally, if the State of Tennessee is forced to recognize same-sex marriages. I don't have one, and I don't live in Tennessee. But that doesn't stop me from rooting for James Obergefell, just as I did for Edie Windsor. I didn't move in 2013 either, yet the Windsor decision overturned the factor that, more than any other, has defined my adult life.

In the early 1990s, binational relationships were formed when people went abroad, not via the Internet. I had never left the United States before, and I went not to neighboring Canada, which was closer, but to Great Britain. At that time, there was no recognition of same-sex partnerships whatsoever in Britain, any more than in the U.S. Never mind marriage--no country on earth had passed that, nor was it on the radar of any queer activist I knew.

With no way into each other's country, two decades ago, an American and a Briton could wait seven years for the opportunity to live together. It sounds almost biblical, doesn't it? And for most of that time, there was not even any foreseeable end in sight. Over seven years those two young people spent 18% of their time in the same country.

With what does that compare favorably? Hostages, maybe, or people in prison. A very long war.

At last year's Pride I went to an exhibition in Toronto called Landed. It told the story of Americans who had gone into exile in Canada, because it was possible for them to immigrate independently to Canada and be joined by their foreign partners, whereas it was not possible for them to bring their partners to the U.S. That exhibition, too, was bittersweet. Landed Americans like me were an anomaly of history; with DOMA overturned, U.S. citizens no longer have to go to Canada for the reasons I did.

I didn't consider myself in exile in Canada. At twenty-seven, the age when I finally qualified to immigrate, I was adaptable and flexible. I was a "new Canadian" from the moment I landed. I found friends, a church, a career that both supported me and that I enjoyed. Most of all, I became a professional writer--my lifelong dream. I was born in the U.S.A., but Canada made me.

As overjoyed as I was to be chosen by Canada, however, it was a decision made for me. Just like DOMA determined that no Brit I had the temerity to fall in love with would be allowed to live in the States. Americans could choose either to live in their own country, or with their foreign partners, if they were able to get into Canada. That was Canada's choice, not ours.

So now we have Windsor, and within twenty-four hours we may have Obergefell. And my point is that our lives have already been shaped. Last night I met an American who's written widely about seven years of temporary visas for his British partner, and how they were forced into exile in Britain in 2012. They have the choice to go home to the U.S. now, too, but what is "home"? Britain isn't exile to the Brit, and by now, they've both made a life here.

Those of us who have spent far longer than three years abroad may choose to stay. Some of the partnerships in Landed did not survive. Marriage is supposed to be the happy ending, and forever, but long-distance relationships change when you're finally in the same house. And every relationship ultimately ends.

So I await the decision as eagerly as other queer Americans, but it is once more bittersweet. James Obergefell already knows that it is too late for John Arthur. The years and decades for other lives and marriages are gone.

Obergefell and his fellow plaintiffs, like Windsor, are not doing this for themselves. They are doing this so the next generation of Ohioans and Tennesseans--and Americans--have choices that we never had.

Read about the Supreme Court cases in plain English and follow along live at