Last 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.
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.
There 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: