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I'm terrified of moving to the US to start a family

Mrigaa Sethi   

I'm terrified of moving to the US to start a family
  • I left New York 14 years ago, before same-sex marriage was legalized in the US.
  • Now, I'm married to an American woman and have a green card.

In 2009, I was 25 and living my best queer life. I had finished a Master of Fine Arts degree from NYU and was an adjunct instructor at various colleges in the city. I shared an apartment with my American girlfriend in Brooklyn — back when it was somewhat affordable — and was reading my poems at dive bars and community bookstores.

I was underemployed and uninsured, sure, but it was a life I could have only dreamed of as an Indian kid growing up in New Delhi in the 1980s, where I had never even heard the word "gay."

The dream ended abruptly one night when my visa application to remain in the US was denied. The H-1B work visa was, and remains, notoriously difficult to get, and same-sex marriage was illegal at the federal level — my girlfriend was unable to marry me.

After 30 days of anxiety, grief, and lawyer's visits, I kissed my sweetheart and rode away in a taxi early one September morning. As rain splattered the windshield, Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" played on the radio and I watched Brooklynites crossing the street, holding takeaway coffees, about to start another day in what I then thought of as the best country on Earth.

Fourteen years ago, I would have done anything for a green card. Today, the rightful owner of a green card — I am not so sure.

I fell in love again, and we crossed continents

In 2017, two years after the Obergefell v. Hodges decision made marriage equality the law of the land in the US, I met the woman who went on to be my wife. Erin, an American, was living in the US, 10,000 miles away from what had become my new home in Southeast Asia.

We did a year of long distance, and eventually, she took a leap of faith and moved across the world to be with me. We began living together in Singapore and got married during a vacation in the US in 2019.

Singapore, where we started our life together, is a small but influential city-state in Southeast Asia. It's renowned for its ambitious infrastructure, razor-sharp efficiency, and low crime rate. Last month, it was named the fifth-best city in the world, according to Resonance Consultancy's World's Best Cities report. The report's methodology factors in sustainable infrastructure, social vibrancy, and growth opportunities.

And yet, its lack of adequate legal frameworks for LGBTQ+ folks meant that Erin and I could not apply as a family for permanent residency, access fertility treatments such as IVF, or sponsor each other for dependent visas if one of us lost our jobs.

As much as we loved Singapore, we knew we couldn't build the life we wanted there. So in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Erin applied to sponsor me for a US green card through marriage. After two years of applications, documents, medical tests, close to $4,000 in fees, and lots of bureaucratic processes, the country that had turned me down all those years ago finally let me back in. It has given me a path to citizenship and the chance to build the family that I want with the person that I want.

I should be ecstatic. But instead, I am terrified.

The freedom to live … or die

Just as I am finally able to return to the land of the free, the US feels less free than ever.

The Human Rights Campaign said that, as of June this year, a record 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures in 2023 alone. These range from curtailing gender-affirming treatment and permitting discrimination to banning books and drag shows.

It's gotten so bad that Canada issued a travel advisory in August about traveling within the United States to its LGBTQ+ citizens.

Last year's chilling overturn of Roe v Wade — and Justice Clarence Thomas' troubling remarks about needing to revisit the same-sex marriage decision — make me worry that the very rights that have legally brought me to this country can easily be reconsidered.

Then there's the threat of physical and gun violence, at times seemingly random and other times exacerbated by unchecked hate speech in public discourse. The Department of Homeland Security has reported a surge in violence against LGBTQ+ individuals and community spaces, with threats "increasingly tied to hate groups and domestic violent extremists." There have been dozens of instances of fatal gun violence against transgender and nonbinary people this year alone. Just two months ago, a store owner in California was shot dead for displaying a pride flag.

It's ironic that as a gay interracial couple, Erin and I would have been far safer in Singapore — where private gun ownership is not permitted — than we are in the US.

Making impossible compromises

I was born in India, where my mother tongue has no word for gay people, and the Supreme Court of India only issued a decision overturning a ban on homosexuality in 2018. I grew up in Thailand, where society tacitly accepts LGBTQ+ communities but there is no legal framework to support them. I lived for a beautiful decade in Singapore, where homosexuality was only decriminalized this year. None of these countries have marriage equality yet.

As a brown queer person, I've stopped waiting around for any one country to hand me the life I want.

So despite the many reasons for terror, I am here, not in the best place on Earth, but in America, hoping to build my gay family without dying in the process.

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