My first impressions of America in 1997 were one of any traveler in a new world. After a long and exhausting journey across the ocean and past Customs, I breathed in the air, felt the ground at my feet, and looked around, taking in the surroundings. America was cleaner, louder, warmer than what I was used to. Brighter at night, with lower ceilings, far better roads, with fast food places smelling unpleasantly of melted, processed cheese.
America had the same sky. The grass and the trees we the same as the ones I knew growing up. How fascinating I found each tiny discovery of commonalities! Even though I was halfway across the world from the place where I grew up, I was still on the same planet, inhabited by people just like me. That made America home. I wanted to learn what made us different and what made us the same.
For a decade, I grew used to my life here having a yearly expiration date of temporary visas. If I stayed silent and invisible, if I didn’t draw attention to Andi and myself any more than we had to. If I did good enough in school, was smart enough, studied harder, remained a ‘model’ immigrant with two masters degrees and a good job and a spotless record: then perhaps, if I was lucky, I’d be allowed to stay in America with my U.S. citizen wife for one more year. That state of permanent uncertainty, of being trapped in an immigration closet in addition to the LGBT closet, is an incredible challenge to fight daily just in order to be able to put down roots and live, as the mental countdown ticks to the next expiration date of a visa.
Over that time period, I faced many things that stood in the way of belonging. Hearing ‘illegal’ and ‘alien’ used in immigration context was one of the toughest to react to. These racially-charged slurs were particularly cruel at dehumanizing an entire group of individuals and reducing all of our worth or contributions, whether immigrants or Americans, to presence or absence of a tracking number. I couldn’t help but feel that we as human beings, as a community, should be better than this, but the truth was, every time I heard such words, I was intimidated enough to keep silent. Staying in the closet instead of fighting against every outburst of nativist rhetoric seemed so much simpler.
Change usually starts from within, in every single one of us, gradual yet unstoppable. For my wife and myself, that tipping point arrived at the darkest of times. After over a decade together with Andi, when I revealed to Kazakhstani embassy officials that I had an American wife, they reacted by making me stateless, which put me out of status as an immigrant. Under DOMA, asylum in the U.S. seemed like the only available course of action for me to remain with my wife, but even at my initial asylum interview in 2010, DOMA’s overwhelming reach into our lives felt surreal: the asylum officer quoted DOMA as the reason for asking me to remove the record of Andi listed as my spouse on the asylum application, and then initiated deportation proceedings. That challenging year also brought an unexpected but life-changing discovery: The DOMA Project
Seeing others like us, unafraid to speak out, brought a change in our own thinking: first, a personal affirmation that we are not alone, that our shared love and commitment is just as important as everyone else’s. That, like any other family in America, we deserve nothing less than full equality. More so, we have a personal choice, today and every day: to stand up, tell our stories, and take action, not just for ourselves, but also for others in our community facing the same injustice.
With Lavi Soloway’s legal advice, we fought back: Andi filed a green card petition for me during proceedings, and together we challenged the immigration court to treat our marriage equally. We won a small victory that day, the immigration judge wrote ‘Svetlana Apodaca’, my married name and an acknowledgement of us as a couple, on the decision granting me asylum. We didn’t stop at that one victory. We continued telling our story online, submitted testimony against DOMA, and volunteered to help others do the same. Last year, inspired by and echoing the message of so many binational couples who weren’t content to sit back and stay silent in the shadows, we attended our ‘green card’ interview in Chicago, prepared to ask that our marriage be treated the same as any marriage. And, as yet another immigration official took notes, each stroke of the government pen making a record of us as a married couple felt as though Andi’s name had gradually began to resurface from omission back to existence, at its place by my side.
Our voices and our presence that day was the most empowering step we took on the road to full equality. But in the meantime, we aren’t waiting for the government to make a record of our names or our stories, we are telling them ourselves. We are right here, we love each other, and our family is no different from any other family.
This May will mark a year since our green card interview. Although nearly ten months has passed, the green card application my wife Andi filed for me during my deportation proceedings has not been denied. At the interview they asked if I knew what DOMA was. Yes we do: discrimination splits apart loving, committed couples. That’s wrong. Let our marriage be treated equally!
Belonging is not tied to a place, belonging is having links with people, with the community. The most powerful growth of belonging in our lives was all driven by people around me - the moment when I chose Andi’s name as my last name, the actions of the immigration judge writing my married name down on the order granting me asylum - small but memorable steps taken to acknowledge our marriage, acknowledge us. The USCIS officer taking notes during our marriage ‘green card’ interview, treating us the same as they would treat any other married couple. He asked about the date we actually exchanged rings in 2005 (our first anniversary) in addition to our later marriage date. Those moments felt as though we were written back into existence by their actions: we belong. We belonged together. We belong right here, in this moment of time.
A linux distribution I’m currently using is called Ubuntu. It’s a South African philosophy meaning ‘I am what we all are)’ - a philosophy emphasizing good will toward strangers and community action. This signifies Internet communities to me.
The Internet is, after all, a land without borders facilitating a meeting of minds: I met my wife and most of my best and most cherished friends through it, and I have found a good cause to fight for over the Internet at well.
There is a page on The DOMA Project website I especially like working on. It’s called “Our Stories”, and it’s a wall of faces: gay and lesbian binational families, often with kids, look back at you off that page. America’s history as nation of immigrants makes it impossible to tell who is the foreigner and who is the US citizen, and you see them as they are: loving families who had traveled and overcome great physical and emotional distances to be with each other, unafraid to share their lives, their stories with others. That makes me feel at home as well, makes me feel that I am part of more than one community: at the intersection of many communities, and never ever alone.
I am at home surrounded with a family of my choice, Andi and a circle of close friends, and a bigger circle of intersecting communities, LGBTQ and allies, writers, artists, librarians, teachers, students, open source programmers, hackers, tinkerers, geeks, self-proclaimed ‘Gryffindors’, travellers, immigrants, and activists. They speak computer languages for fun or translate from one human language to another. They think of the world rather than one country as their home. They offer compassion, knowledge, and support across distances and face to face. They know how to create something wonderful with limited resources and they never ever give up in each other or our worth as human beings or as community. They know well that families come in all shapes and colors, and family is something you choose, in addition to being born into. And that, is the best home one could ever wish for.
Carl Sagan said once: “Each of us is a tiny being, permitted to ride on the outermost skin of one of the smaller planets for a few dozen trips around the local star.”
From the incredible distance of vast open space, man-made borders are all imaginary and with that perspective in mind, love is infinitely more powerful, and the time spent with each other in this world is infinitely more precious.