Sixteen years ago this month I went for a night out that changed my life.
It was a Friday night. I’d worked hard at college. All I was looking for was a drink and a dance.
I was in New Haven, CT. A sleepy college town, you could walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes.
It was a warm night without stars, I recall. Usually when I went out I went with my college posse, but I went out alone that night.
Back in the late 1990s there were only few dance clubs to choose from. I picked Gotham City, the underground bunker with the long bar and two-level dance floor.
I never expected to meet anyone interesting in those places. I wasn’t a snob; I had just discovered that I didn’t often have much in common with the people I would encounter.
Bearded bears would ignore me; toxic twinks would look through me. Preppy college kids kept to themselves.
Not for the first time I discovered that I really belonged on the fringes of things, because even the gay community has an outer circle for the true weirdos. It didn’t bother me; I was there to dance.
That’s when I saw him. Across the room, standing by himself, the most poetic face I have ever seen. You don’t always recognize the moments when your life changes, but I could actually feel the fulcrum of the universe turn.
Then I did something quite unlike me. I arranged an introduction.
It didn’t go well. The man with the poetic face barely looked at me. And that was that. He disappeared into the crowd and I didn’t see him again for two weeks.
But the next time we met I played to win. All the Irish charm he missed the last time got a full hearing.
I outdid myself. I made him laugh uproariously. It was magical how well we got on.
We moved in together that September for my final year at college. The summer had passed in a walking dream. Before I had always planned to return to Ireland after graduation, but suddenly I was in the most rewarding relationship of my life and there was no question that I wanted it to continue.
We decided we would both move to New York City. It was a commitment we were making to each other and to our future together. We couldn’t have anticipated all the challenges we would face, but we were very clear we would do it together.
We fetched up in the once strongly Irish American neighborhood of Inwood. The very last stop in Manhattan, we took the A train to work in the city each morning.
Unlike many of my college friends we were poor, which meant we needed jobs right away. Rent, food, transport and living expenses saw us living under a stopwatch from the moment we arrived.
It was the end of the Clinton era and we both found work pretty quickly. But because we could not then legally marry and enjoy the 1,047 rights and protections granted to heterosexual married couples, the following years saw us flying back and forth to Ireland multiple times to renew each visa that I won at the American Embassy in Dublin.
The expense each time was ruinous – flights, hotels, visa processing fees, steep payments to lawyers. The money had to come from somewhere, but how we were supposed to pay for all this making minimum wage?
It says a lot about our determination that we stuck it out. By the mid 2000s we had already learned enough about the difficult visa application processes here to start our own immigration business.
Green cards were like gold dust, we learned. We had also learned our rights were completely inferior to other couples. We had learned the road ahead was going to be pointlessly hard for us.
On TV each night conservative voices debated our rights and suggested that we had enough already. People who claimed to speak for God simply told us that He condemned us. God’s love and America's constitutional protections belonged only to them.
It was an eye opening time for me.
Stripped of all their showy piety and moral indignation, what their message really boiled down to was that that we were being told we would never be safe. Not tomorrow, not ever.
I’d already grown up with that message. In Donegal, where I’m from, I had heard it often, sometimes even from my relatives. In Northern Ireland, where I went to university, I saw the living proof of it. In New York, where I live now, I heard it again when conservative voices sought to prevent marriage equality from becoming law in this state.
They failed in the end and we won, thanks to the U.S. Constitution, but it took some doing. It’s important to remember now why we were prevented from enjoying the same rights as other couples.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which President Bill Clinton signed in 1996, was crafted to “protect” heterosexual marriages from homosexual ones. That’s like the impulse to protect Santa Claus from the Easter Bunny. One really does not affect the other, but DOMA was always about prejudice. It was never about sense. Clinton knew that when he signed it.
It’s hard to live your daily life under an oppression that makes no sense, but what choice did we have? Our relationship deepened as the years went by. Some of my heterosexual friends married and divorced and then married again, telling me they were embarrassed that we couldn’t do the same.
The morning in June of 2013 when DOMA was finally struck down by the Supreme Court I sat at my computer desk staring at the screen in incredulity. In a moment, the oppression I had lived under my entire adult life was consigned to history, as though it never existed. It felt like a new door had opened in a room I thought I knew.
People who were unaffected – and that’s most people – got on with their day without giving it much more thought. But for my partner and for me it was a watershed. After 15 years of waiting, it allowed us to finally avail of the same rights and protections that other couples took for granted.
One of the rights granted by the collapse of DOMA was the right of LGBT couples to marry – and for their foreign-born spouses to immigrate to the United States. Finally the door that had been barred shut to me for so long had swung open.
We picked July 5 for our wedding day. One day after Independence Day, we chose it because it was a simple reminder that we had waited longer for our own independence.
When we arrived at City Hall we were married by a good humored Irish American man whose mother came from Co. Sligo. He knew how to pronounce my name perfectly, a rare luxury on civic occasions. It cost us just $25 to change our lives.
Later, with our marriage certificate in hand, we were represented by the excellent Irish-run law firm of James O’Malley, whose track record of successful visa applications on my behalf had made them our first choice.
Immigration law for LGBT couples is still new, but O’Malley’s firm was prepared for any question that arose and the application procedure was flawless.
It took months after the application was submitted for our green card interview date to be scheduled. O’Malley’s firm had given us a comprehensive dress rehearsal telling us what to expect, but on the day itself the actual interview was even shorter than they had anticipated.
After 16 years you end up with a lot of supporting evidence of a long marriage. We had photographs, joint accounts, and years of visa and employment records, everything they needed.
Like a lot of people I had still dreaded the experience. What if the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service officer is homophobic? What if they ask for some proof we don’t have on the day? What if, what if, what if? The anxiety can be described, but it can’t be conveyed until you have the experience yourself.
As it happened we were barely in the office 10 minutes before my green card application was approved. We had abundant supportive material, we had prepared for every question, and we looked presentable. We had arrived that morning at 8:15 a.m. and we were back on the street with the good news a little after 9 a.m.
For the rest of the day we hardly knew what to do with ourselves. So in the end we did what we always do. We had an old married couple day – lunch at the Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights, then back home to tidy up and do laundry. Feed the cats, look out a window.
I baked some Irish brown bread, which I find cures my anxiety, and later we sat down and had tea like any other American family. We were home after all.