“Why can’t you just go to Russia?” an immigration officer asked, after I explained in detail that I would be in danger as a member of persecuted minority, if I were to be separated from my U.S. citizen partner of over a decade and deported back to Kazakhstan.
In 2010, my experience at the USCIS offices in downtown Chicago was surreal. My wife was in the same room, but was not allowed to speak. Mere minutes beforehand, I was asked to cross out her name and information as my spouse from my application for asylum in the United States. The Defense of Marriage Act rendered us legal strangers and left no place for her alongside me on any official document: not on a marriage-based green card petition, not on any other form of relief from deportation, not even on my individual asylum application, truly a last resort.
Next spring, fighting deportation proceedings no opposite-sex couple would have had to fight, we crossed the Mississippi from Illinois to Iowa. Here, on the opposite bank of the river, we could marry. As we said our vows and signed the documents, I took Andi’s last name. Afterward, we went home across the river and became legal strangers once more just by crossing a bridge.
When an immigration judge in Chicago took the time to write down my married name on the decision granting me asylum, it was a turning point. In the year that followed we were a bi-national same-sex couple, bidding farewell to the era of deportations, separations and exile and fighting for full equality: volunteering our time, speaking out, and helping others share their stories through The DOMA Project.
During our marriage-based green card interview in May 2012, Andi and I watched as another USCIS officer took notes on the margin, asking me not only the date of our marriage in Iowa, but the date we exchanged our rings for the first time, many years prior, in our home state. We celebrated as the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down at last by the Supreme Court, as many bi-national same-sex families achieved their mutual victories, and as just a few weeks later our green card petition approval arrived in the mail, 2.5 years after we initially filed it.
Taking our place alongside each other and amid our varied communities as equals, was a victory many others did not live to experience. Andi and I survived the battle and were made stronger and more aware, with insight to keep fighting for each other and a better world. We will live loving each other as equals. We will continue to speak out, unafraid. We will travel freely.
Maybe, one day, I will even go to Russia.