Monday, August 31, 2009

My experience: How DOMA allows for legal discrimination at the very point of entry into the USA

Yesterday at JFK International airport, as I re-entered the United States with my legal spouse after traveling abroad for two months, I was to be separated from my spouse while he was taken by officials for questioning about his true identity.

This same scenario occurred a year ago at JFK International airport. My spouse, Mr. Jose Ortiz, a guidance counselor in the public schools of New York City, has been, on more than one occasion, confused with a criminal by the same name.

Last year was the first time that this happened to us upon re-entry into the US. It was somewhat traumatic for me to be potentially separated from my then-11-year life partner (this was just a couple days before our legal civil marriage was to take place). The officer was asking Jose to "follow me" without any explanation and telling me to remain behind. I refused to be separated especially not knowing what was taking place. A superior officer granted me permission to remain with Jose after my explanation that we had "domestic certification" with New York City. It was traumatic at the time: the feeling of law officers separating us without being able to communicate with each other and without being told why we were being separated. I observed, while remaining with Jose in the room where the identity process was conducted, that whole families (spouses and children) entered the room together when only one of the spouses was being questioned. In other (heterosexual) families, the policy is to NOT separate spouses and children during this process – a very wise policy for sure – seeing how potentially traumatic it can be to be separated at this point of entry (for foreigners) and re-entry (for Americans).

This year, when the same thing happened, I was of course less traumatized. But nonetheless, the experience was a bit unnerving (as any legal process can be when law officials are involved and they are leading your spouse away from you without any explanation). When I refused to be separated from Jose "because we are legally married" the officer responded "not here" and laughed (more at the situation, it turns out, than at us or my request). And of course, being in an airport where the jurisdiction is Federal, DOMA does not recognize my legal marriage (which took place in California on August 25, 2008). I ignored his comment "not here" and insisted that since I was married in California and that since NY State recognizes my marriage, I am married. (Hence his laugh, as I look back on it. That is, how interesting that I was passing through a no-man's land where just before entrance I was legally married; as I passed through I was not legally married; and once I was to exit a few paces after our encounter, I would be legally married again.)

The officer who laughed did grant me permission to enter the room with Jose for the processing of his identity and passport. So we were not, in the end, separated; but only because I insisted.

This experience, in which we could have been separated legally from one another on the basis of DOMA, is a stark realization that our marriage is only legally so-so depending on where we are and what the laws are in that given place. I'm wondering now about certain States: what could happen in hospitals where States do not, constitutionally, allow for same-sex marriages.

This weekend I travel with Jose to Colorado for a conference over Labor Day weekend. We will be renting a car. If there is an accident in which Jose is injured, could the hospital in Colorado legally forbid me to be with Jose in the emergency room? After all, I believe Colorado is one of those more-than-30 states which have amended their constitution to read that marriage is only between opposite sexes. Hence, my marriage in California is not recognized in Colorado, I assume.

DOMA needs to be repealed, and of course, Bill Clinton is now on record as regretting he signed DOMA, and President Obama has promised the LGBT community that he will push for our equal rights.

It would be nice next summer to be able to re-enter my country without having to be separated from my spouse as other heterosexual married couples are not when only one spouse needs special processing. That all depends on DOMA's status, no doubt.

And, whoever that other Jose Ortiz is out there - - - well, you've got a name I really like, so if you are in trouble with the law – clean up your act. And as for DOMA, it needs to go away, otherwise it may be my name that's in trouble with the law some day because I don't intend to have government separate me from my spouse without fully understanding what is going on. For now, I'm writing my Congressman about my unhappy experience with DOMA and the unjust and discriminating treatment I received under the law -- that is, DOMA allows for legal discrimination at the very point of entry into the USA. I wonder how the Lady with the lamp feels about that!

Above photo: Beijing International Airport, point of departure before re-entry into the USA.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The lady from Kuala Lumpur and the "Crying" Twin Towers

It was late afternoon when we arrived in Kuala Lumpur from Singapore by bus. We had an evening speaking engagement at 8pm and were to leave early the next morning for Lumut, a west cost town. That meant we had a small window of time to visit the Twin Towers of Kuala Lumpur. We were met at the bus station by a new friend we had made the weekend before at a retreat we had attended in Port Dickson, Malaysia. He was happy to see us and eager to take us to the Twin Towers and then on to our evening meeting. We checked in to the hotel, took with us the items we needed for the meeting and were off to the Twin Towers by the city trains with our friendly guide. It was a perfect day. We took pictures along the way: a Mosque here, city buildings there.

Our second and final train took us under the city. It was then that my thoughts and feelings transported me to another time when I was under that other city and on my way to another set of Twin Towers. It was 9-11 and I was making my way from Jackson Heights, Queens, to Rockefeller Center where I worked for a law firm as a paralegal. It was a large law firm that held 13 floors of Rockefeller Center. I worked in an area of the building that had a direct view of both Towers. Daily I took in the view with a sense of awe, inspiration and pure delight. On this day -- 9-11 -- I was struck with horror and disbelief like all New Yorkers as I looked out upon the burning towers upon my arrival to work around 9:30am.

Now -- here in Kuala Lumpur -- I was under the city approaching the Twin Towers. Different feelings came to the surface. One feeling in particular I had to wilfully dismiss. It was, "How could they do that to us? Did they cry for us when it happened?" I couldn't get the thought out of my head. I immediately divorced the first "they" from the second "they." The first "they" were the extremists. The second "they" were the general populace presently all around me in their Muslim garb. One gentleman sitting there on the train caught my eyes. As he looked at me, I smiled at him -- it is a regular practice of mine to smile at strangers who may glance my way. He smiled back and it helped me bring things into perspective.

We left the train at our Twin Tower station and ascended the stairs. As we came to the huge mull area that is situated under the Twin Towers, we had our first glimpse towards the light of day. It was pouring. That small window of opportunity to stand at the base of the Towers had closed on us. Like the tourist I was, I was heartbroken. Our guide and friend turned to us and suggested we go to the food court and try some Malaysian deserts while we wait. As we made our way to the fourth or fifth floor -- the mull opening up before us like the modern cathedral it was -- I felt comforted by the rain, not cheated of an opportunity. The rain was fitting. I felt it was just as it should be. My partner, Jose, and our Malaysian friend, kept hounding me to keep up with them. But I was reflective. It slowed my pace some.

At the food court, we sat right up against huge windows. In fact, the whole wall was a window. I could see a large part of the Kuala Lumpur skyline. And it was all grey. Streaking grey with the descending rain. Jose and our friend talked and talked as I observed the skies. The heavens were crying for the 9-11 Twin Towers of NYC. The heavens understood my feelings here. My first trip to the Twin Towers since 2001, and the heavens understood. I was comforted by the rain. Jose, my life partner of 12 years who knows me well, could see I was in a different space. He put his arm around me. "It is fitting, you know, that it is raining," I told him. I held back the turns.

A week and two days later, we were at the foot of Penang Hill on Penang Island, Malaysia, waiting to take the incline to the top of the mountain. A lady from Kuala Lumpur, just two years my senior, was there with her family. We had a twenty minute wait. Conversation began between us all -- her family and Jose and me and an Englishman who was spending the afternoon and evening with us.

Then of course the obvious question: "Did you go to the Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur." I was standing somewhat center and I just said it. My reflections. I told them about the rain. I told them how I had seen the Twin Towers ablaze in New York City. I told them how as I was approaching the Twin Towers of Kuala Lumpur that all those feelings came back. I told them, then, how it rained, but that instead of feeling cheated out of my touring plans, the rain was a comfort. The skies were crying for me.

How silly of me. The poet taking the pulpit. But there, I said it. Jose was somewhat supportive. He turned to the Englishman and said I could be reflective like this, feeling my feelings. It was something Jose had told me attracted me to him.

The lady from Kuala Lumpur was supportive, too. Everyone else stood mute. Not a word. Not she. She said our life traumas are still there at some level and things like this can bring us back to that time and place where the trauma first impacted us. She was smiling as she spoke. The affirmation felt good.

But little did I know just how well she really understood until we boarded the incline train all still together this family with Jose and me and the Englishman. And then she told us all. It was her turn to speak what she was recalling.

You see, in 1963 when she was but 12 years old, her mother ascended this very incline while she remained below. That was the last time she was to see her mother alive. An heart attack took her mother from her at the top of the mountain. I believe this was only the second time since then that she had made the trip to the top. It had been about 30 years since she was here for her last time.

I could see now how well she understood me when I had said it was fitting that it was raining at the Towers of Kuala Lumpur.

(As it turned out, we were able to view the Towers briefly when the rain let up that late afternoon, and in the late evening, at night, we viewd the Towers for a second. An attende at the seminar took us to the Towers by car. In this photo, you see Jose and the Towers at night, Thursday, August 13, 2009)