Unhappy that a New Jersey immigration court judge decided to grant political asylum to my friend Emilio last week, the government has decided that it must spend legal and fiscal resources to challenge the ruling and prolong the legal battle that Emilio and his partner Tom have been waging for the last five years in order to stay together as a couple.
"Rights for gays: It was in the order of the day until the last moment in the legislature, and when there was attempt to vote... quorum disintegrated."
So the bill was actually brought to the floor for a vote but some cowardly legislators jumped up and left their seats. Incredibly disappointing if not necessarily surprising.
Persons of the Year?: In the meantime, Semana magazine is asking online readers to vote for who they consider to be the "Person of the Year" and has listed "The Gay Collective" as one of the top 40 candidates for the honor and single out the role of LGBT organizations such as Colombia Diversa, Apoyemonos, Triangulo Negro, Sentimos Diverso, Polo de Rosa, Degeneres-e, Mujeres al Borde and others for the important work they have done this year. If you would like to cast a vote for the Gay Collective as Semana's Person of the Year, go here, click on the woman with the purple wig and cast your vote by clicking on the "VOTE" button. It allows you to vote once a day, even if you have voted before, so I'm unsure how they are tabulating the numbers.
Let's say that attending one of the annual Gay Expo's at the Jacob Javitz Convention Center is not my idea of fun and I usually avoid it like the plague. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that some people want to pay for a ticket to spend even more money on all sorts of ultra-gay stuff such as a rainbow-colored raincoat for kitty or a pink wiener-ring. As I say, nothing wrong with that but it just ain't me (and if I had a kitty, I'd probably buy a regular yellow poncho.... then again, maybe I'd let kitty get wet).
But there I was a month ago trudging my way from Queens to Manhattan's West Side hinterlands on a weekend to catch a private screening of documentary maker Sebastian Cordoba's "Through Thick and Thin" during this year's Expo (I've mentioned it here before but had yet to see it).
Through Thick and Thin: The documentary, which is still being edited as it makes the festival rounds, follows the hardships faced by seven same-sex couples whose relationships are in the balance due to the fact that one partner cannot sponsor the other for residency or citizenship as heterosexual couples can in this country. David Kennerly of Gay City News was also at the screening and wrote this review.
Even as a work in process, the film is tremendously moving, as couples are forced to make sacrifices for their love of each other that a number of heterosexual marriages would never survive: Two men raising children live with the fear of being torn apart at any moment; a woman decides to move to the UK with her partner even though she has to leave a well-paying job, an extended family and two supporting daughters back in the United States; two young girls dream of moving in together and escaping being rejected by their families but run into the immigration barrier instead; a man whose health is deteriorating cannot find a way to get his Brazilian partner to be by his side; each year, two men's hearts brim with joy during the two weeks that they are able to visit each other and are crushed each time they have to say good-bye; two immigrant partners of United States citizens are seeking political asylum based on persecution in their home countries but face deportation if the asylum court says no.
I was able to catch the screening at the invitation of one of the couples, Tom and Emilio (above, right). We have known Emilio, who was born in Venezuela, just about forever, and Tom? Just a sweet, great guy despite being so damn tall! Both have lived together for over five years and to see them together is to see two men deeply in love.
Tom and Emilio: In the documentary, it is clear just how much Emilio is part of Tom's extended family and how much they love him. Tom doesn't shy away from talking to his parents and brothers about the challenges and frustrations of not being able to plan a future together out of the fear that Emilio might get sent home by an immigration judge. The camera follows them to asylum court where a decision has been in the balance for years and their fear, stress and disappointment is palpable when they are told that a decision has been postponed once again.
Now, in my line of work, I have probably helped hundreds of people who have applied for political asylum based on sexual orientation be it through helping them to assess whether they have a good case, translating documents that prove that there is persecution against gays and lesbians in Latin America or actually acting as translator during the nerve-wracking asylum court interviews.
Recently, knowing just how involved I am on these issues and expressing the frustration he has felt over the last few years, Tom asked me: "Why aren't you angrier?"
It's a question that has stuck in my mind and one that I don't think I have answered. But it's different to represent a client seeking asylum than to watch friends go through the process. Truth be told, if you see hundreds of these cases, you become somewhat desensitized to the process and detached from the outcome. Not that you stop caring but you would die of sadness or anger if you invested yourself emotionally each time a decision was made (thankfully, of the cases in which I have been involved only two people have been deported, pretty good batting average, no?).
At the screening I sat behind Emilio and Tom. In the dark, watching their story as well as that of others, I could not help but cry. In front of me, Emilio was also overcome while Tom held his hand tightly. I managed to wipe away my tears before the lights came on but Emilio knew: "Lagrimitas?" he asked, and he just smiled and said "Me too."
Immigration rights activists: As Tom also reminds me from time to time, I have turned them into immigration rights activists. It was back in 2004 that I reached out to them to speak to HOY for a cover page article they were doing on the decision by Massachusetts to allow same-sex marriage rights in the state. Last week, I also asked them to talk to HOY again in the wake of the recent New Jersey ruling that seems to be paving the way for civil unions instead of marriage rights. I felt that their situation, as New Jersey residents, perfectly illustrated why civil unions do not match full marriage rights for same-sex partners. Truth is that whether New Jersey approves civil unions or actual marriage (civil marriage or religious marriage), immigration rights for same-sex bi-national couples won't be recognized unless the federal government recognizes that same-sex couples are also creating families.
Stay or leave: On Friday night I got a call from Emilio. We'll be meeting Tom and Emilio for dinner and drinks on the 30th so I thought he wanted to make final plans for the evening. Instead he was calling to say that he'd just found out he'd been finally granted political asylum in the United States! My partner and I, who were having dinner at a Colombian restaurant, were just overjoyed and told Emilio we would make a toast for him. Talk about an amazing holidat present.
So Tom and Emilio are finally able to plan ahead and conceivably spend their lives together in the United States now that Emilio has been granted asylum, right? Well, not so fast! Tom admits that "It's the first time in 5 years we feel completely safe," but plans they have made to move to Canada next year are still moving full-speed ahead and the fact that the United States Department of Homeland Security, which is in charge of immigration, made it almost impossible for Tom and Emilio to remain together is behind their resolution to abandon this country.
We hope that it won't come to that but, if it does, we will understand completely and fully support Tom and Emilio in their decision. For now we rejoice in the fact that Emilio can stay.
The Annual Gay Expo: And, as long as we are being open, the Gay Expo did not turn out to be as bad as I thought. Maybe (gulp!) I should go back next year and check it out? If I do, I'll let you know.
A few people have asked: "So what's up with that impending vote on same-sex partnership rights in the Colombian House of Representatives?"
Short answer: The vote has not taken place and it is now likely that opponents will get their wish: If there is no vote by the end of the 2006 legislative session (which I believe comes to a close this weekend), the bill will have been defeated and a new measure would have to be reintroduced in a new legislative session for it to be reconsidered.
Long Answer: Earlier this month the leading editorial newspaper in the country reported that, if it came to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote, it was certain to pass. But actually getting it to the floor has proven to be the linchpin, despite backing from conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
In a public audience that took place on December 5th, advocates and foes of the measure presented their arguments on the floor of the House of Representatives. Since then, though, conservative legislators have managed to block an actual floor vote by fast-tracking other bills and using filibuster strategies fully knowing that if they are successful if not allowing a vote on the bill by the end of the 2006 legislative session they will have in fact defeated it.
There has been some behind-the-scenes drama as well:
Immediately after the Senate passed a version of the bill in October, Alfredo Cuello Baute, the President of the House of Representatives, vowed to do everything in his power to sink the bill. But an ethics panel committee said that those statements reflected a lack of impartiality on the issue and ruled that this made him ineligible to preside over the debate, a huge victory for advocates of the measure (on the other hand, the ethics committee also said that it was also looking into whether Representative Oscar Gomez Agudelo should recuse himself from the vote for having come out publicly as having a long term relationship with another man).
In the meantime, long-simmering tensions between some of the leading gay-rights advocates in the country became more public as Manuel Antonio Velandia, probably the best known openly gay leader in Colombia, said that he'd rather see the rights of the gay community continue to be trampled upon than support Senator Alvaro Araujo who introduced the bill in the Senate (as paraphrased earlier in the month in El Espectador).
You could read that statement in a number of ways but some activists were angered by what they saw as an attempt to undermine efforts to push for passage of the law. Particularly because Mr. Velandia has been on the sidelines of the debate this time around despite having been the architect of a similar bill in the late 1990's and holding center stage during public hearings when another bill was introduced by left-wing Senator Piedad Cordoba in 2000.
In an online e-mail list, Mr. Velandia defended his comments and said that, if people had read more closely, they would have realized that he wasn't against the content of the bill itself but the fact that Senator Araujo was the one who had introduced the bill. Senator Araujo is among a number of Senators who might lose his seat due to alleged ties to paramilitary forces. Mr. Velandia has also recently been the recipient of several death threats for commentary he has written in a blog linked to the newsweekly Semana.com.
The final stake through the heart of the bill might have come from a government agency. On December 6, a representative for the Ministry of Housing expressed concern that the same-sex partnership bill might make it easier for persons to commit fraud by falsely declaring a common relationship in requesting housing assistance. They also alleged that there had been no credible studies that established the number of same-sex partnerships in the country which left the ministry without tools to measure the actual economic impact of the proposed law on the agency.
For a while this summer we were following the latest information on the disappearance and death of Adrian Exley, a British gay man who traveled to Massachusetts to meet a potential sexual partner he'd met online. Last we heard, the Lynn Police Department were saying that evidence at the home of Gary LeBlanc seemed to indicate that there had been a murder. Some blog readers said that it would probably turn out to be a bondage scene gone wrong.
Well, apparently they were right. According to Tuesday's issue of The Daily Itiem of Lynn, autopsy reports indicate that Exley died from asphyxiation while wearing a rubber restraining suit after four days of having entered LeBlanc's house (LeBlanc would later commit suicide leaving a note that indicated where Exley's body could be found).
The paper says that a third man involved in the session helped LeBlanc remove the body from his home and to dispose of it. Exley's family have filed a lawsuit against LeBlanc's estate and the third man on the scene, Scott Vincent, and want Vincent charged with murder.
Back in October, in a legislative first, the Colombian Senate voted in favor of the recognition of some limited rights for same-sex couples despite heavily organized opposition from the country's Catholic church and right-wing political leaders (other similar bills had been introduced in the past but it was the first time in the country that a nation-wide legislative vote had been taken on a pro-gay rights measure and thankfully it was in its favor).
Personally, that's as far as I thought that the bill would get. Still, over the weekend, El Tiempo, the leading Colombian editorial newspaper, predicted that the bill would not only survive tomorrow's House of Representatives vote but also pass the next hurdle when it's sent for final review by a special commission of the House. That would send it to President Alvaro Uribe's desk for a signature (he already promised that he would sign it if it landed on his desk during his re-election campaign earlier this year).
El Tiempo says that the imminent passage of the bill has taken some behind-the-scenes Uribe-led arm twisting to secure conservative votes on behalf of the bill. Some gay-rights advocates are horrified that a conservative president such as Uribe might become the first to sign a gay-rights bill into law.
But tonight Colombia seems nearer to approving a landmark bill on behalf of same-sex couples.