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The Political Made Personal

vollard.jpgLast night I went to a big rowdy New Years Eve party in San Francisco. I don’t often go out for New Years—this was the first time since 2000—but I couldn’t miss this particular party: it served double-duty as a farewell for my friend Phyllis and her life partner Helen.

Phyllis and Helen are moving to England, Helen’s birth land, because they’re a gay international couple unrecognized as legitimate by the U.S. government. For years they’ve been maneuvering the red tape of the immigration system, organizing their lives around complicated and sometimes senseless laws. They’d get work or school visas on one side of the pond or the other, buying six months here, two years there, sometimes enduring long separations. Meanwhile they petitioned, wrote letters, and demonstrated for changes in immigration and gay marriage laws. About a year ago, the British government removed one unnecessary obstacle to the lives of people in love, and passed what amounts to a domestic partnership law. Thus, after two years in the States, with another visa deadline approaching, they began packing their bags.

Phyllis came to San Francisco in her twenties seeking the Promised Land—which she found: she’s a brilliant, accomplished photographer who specializes in the erotic, and her work flourished here (see a few examples below). She was a vital force in helping to create a close-knit community of mostly lesbian artists. Helen, a writer, fit right into this community and with Phyllis’s closest friends. She was happy living in the house Phyllis had bought years before they met–not just a place to live, but a commitment to the city Phyllis loved, a place where creative projects were constantly in progress. Her roommate, Karen Everett, is the producer of award-winning videos like Framing Lesbian Fashion and The Life of Marlon Riggs. Their walls are covered with pictures of their friends at all kinds of creative happenings. I was one of dozens of people whose book jacket photos were shot in Phyl’s bedroom and developed in her darkroom. She regularly supplied the Bay Guardian, East Bay Express and other publications with photographs both whimsical and daring. Not only is Phyllis leaving the city and the community she loves; she’s also leaving her biological family, who she regularly visits in Buffalo, New York.

renoirlandscape.jpg

On my way to the party, I worried we might cry all night—but the entertainment turned out to be, as usual at Phyl’s parties, much too upbeat for mourning. The karaoke machine was busy all night with people doing songs from all over the muscial spectrum, especially by Phyl’s beloved Carly Simon. Over $100 was raised to reward wet t-shirt contestants; Susie Bright “fulfilled a lifelong dream” and brought down the house with her quasi-stripper performance. An altar in progress collected artifacts and symbols of both San Francisco and England. Having spent my first year in SF at poetry readings, I donated a bunch of chapbooks by some of the City’s poets.

hand-and-foot.jpgThere must’ve been about 200 people crowding the hall, the stairway, and every room in the house. I saw people I haven’t seen in years. Simple and elaborate gifts were brought for the emigrating couple—chocolate candy; a guided walking tour of London; even an “I Love America” t-shirt—not to mention a few items unfit for a G-Rated Blogsite. With all the fun and games, it was easy to forget the party’s primary purpose. Only when I looked at Phyllis from time to time, hugging someone with tears in her eyes or laughing as she opened some gag gift, did I feel the widening crack in my heart and wonder if anyone realizes the tangible, direct effects of our country’s restrictive and archaic laws.

If you’ve never seen her work, mosey on over to http://www.phyllischristopher.com. Then sit down and write your Congresspeople demanding changes in immigration, domestic partner and gay marriage laws.

    Addendum (1/7/07):

Phyllis, on her stopover in NYC, writes:
Leaving San Francisco is one of the most difficult things I have ever done
in my life….We have made this decision for long term dignity–the ability for each of us to travel through borders without being questioned, doing the work we would prefer, and hopefully attaining some financial stability. The current state of US immigration law does not allow these
luxuries, and the UK has granted me a visa on the basis of our relationship, so off we go….There is more info here:

http://www.immigrationequality.org


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7 responses »

  1. Hi Marcy,

    I”m so glad you wrote about the party and explained all this immigration nonsense. I’m going to link my story to yours!
    xoxoxo Susie

  2. Marcy – You really captured what we’ve been going through, and the joy and pain of the party, and I can’t thank you enough. Your piece brought tears to my eyes. A great deal of my anguish around this issue is that people just don’t understand the inequality in the law, but once they do, they’re usually out-raged, so thank you so much for spreading the word! I’m going to send this to
    everybody on my list at:
    http://www.immigrationequality.org
    love
    phyllis

  3. Thank you for this moving story.

    Almost seven years ago I attended a party with a similar purpose, in Oakland Ca. The party was to honour my partner, Martha, who had no choice but to leave the US if she wanted to live her life with me.

    I had flown over to the party on the weekend of a long UN meeting in New York. Everything was right about that party. Martha has great friends, garnered from a full life of living, working and playing in the Bay area. The home was beautiful. The snacks were delicious. The bubbly was at perfect temperature. And me? I spent most of the time in the bathroom, sick to the stomach and supremely aware that Martha was giving up all of this to be with me.

    By the time my plane for New York carried me away from her real world, I was at least vertical again and could continue my UN task of advancing the rights of women. Well, many women. Not lesbians. Lesbians at that meeting were told to shut up, that our demands were irrelevant and too much too soon. I recommend the book Written Out (http://www.cwgl.rutgers.edu/globalcenter/publications/written.htm) for more on that subject.

    Feeling sick to the stomach (and ‘letting it all out’) did have an effect though. I realised that if I can use my political skills to demand women’s human rights, I can use them to demand the human rights of the woman I love. That is why I am passionate about volunteering for Love Exiles (www.loveexiles.org), the organisation Martha set up to support gay and lesbian Americans that are forced into exile for falling in love across borders. It is why I want every lesbian and gay man in the USA and their family members to make sure their elected representative signs on to the United American Families Act. That is all it takes, to give us just one right. The right to be together in the country that Martha was born in, the country that educated her, the country her family lives in and the country that is willing to dismiss her because she has the good sense to love me.

    Perhaps some of the same people attended Martha’s party as Phyllis’. How many more of these parties will people attend?

    Helen and Phyllis, visit sometime! We’re having a Love Exiles potluck in Amsterdam this coming January 28th.

  4. Marcy, thank you so much for writing about the party, and the discrimination that lesbian and gay couples face under American immigration law. To read more about the issue – and to get immigration help – visit Immigration Equality’s website: http://www.immigrationequality.org

    We have extensive FAQ’s for couples in Phyllis and Helen’s and Lin and Martha’s situation. Last year we collaborated with Human Rights Watch to publish a documentary report on anti-gay immigration discrimination, called “Family, Unvalued.” There are many heartbreaking stories in there. Click on http://www.immigrationequality.org/familyunvalued.php
    for a link to the online version of the report.

    Best to all, at home and in exile,

    Rachel Tiven
    Immigration Equality Executive Director

  5. hey marcy…as a “fellow” mixed marriage sufferer and acquaintence of both phyllis and helen…allow me to say “ouch!”it is painful… i am back in san fran…my girl comes back in a week and then we have until may to figure it all out…thank you for your letter and for your inspiration.
    lynne jassem

  6. Dear Marcy,

    Thank you for putting your remarkable talent to work writing about one of the most amazing parties I’ve ever been to. Phyllis is a brave woman to be leaving the country she loves (despite its insanity) for the woman she loves. I miss her and Helen terribly.

    Thanks to all those who contributed to the party. Your songs, gifts, hugs and love of Phyllis was an amazing gathering of a community that has inspired so many of us through the years.

    Karen

  7. Thank you for writing about Phyllis and Helen.
    Phyllis sent me this link; I was fortunate enough to live with her and Karen over the summer when Helen was away. I was sorry to miss this celebration and good-bye.
    I was talking to my 84 year old grandmother about this predicament the other night, and although she is from another era, even she could see how unjust and unfair the situation is. A good friend has been dealing with this in Los Angeles for several years; I’ve watched he (also British) and his American partner struggle and invest money and time going back and forth. They’re fortunate that they can travel.
    Someday our society will mature enough that this will be a non-issue; it has to be sooner rather than later.

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