When I was twelve and playing MASH (a fortune-telling game that was the go-to at slumber parties), or fantasizing about our perfect man with a group of girls, I could never really envision my future, even in fantasy. I just couldn’t see him: was he tall, dark and handsome? What body housed his brilliant smile and great sense of humor (qualities that seemed of universal appeal)? I couldn’t imagine him, or him and me together, or our wedding day, or moving into our mansion/shack/apartment/house. I only knew one thing for sure: this person had an accent.
So when I studied abroad in England, I thought I had gone to heaven. Not only did everyone there have accents, but to them, I had an accent too! Win-win. My friends and I made friends with lots of British boys, and we giggled over each other’s pronunciations and balanced on tightropes of sexual tension. But something was still imperfect, which I realize in retrospect was probably, for me at least, the fact that they were boys.
In 2003, fresh off the boat from college, my first job was at a summer camp in upstate New York. Little did I know that, unlike in Commonwealth countries where “working holiday” visas abound, the only thing similar that the U.S. offers to the gap-year citizens of the world is the J-1 visa, “for individuals approved to participate in work-and study-based exchange visitor programs.” Bring us your au pairs, your interns, your exchange students, your erstwhile camp counselors yearning to be free … just as long as they return to their home countries within 30 days of their program’s completion. Those who come on this visa must be sponsored by an employer or eligible institution, which arranges all their paperwork with the government in exchange for fees. At summer camps, at least, the participants are paid usually a small stipend, which barely covers their application and visa fees and their flights from their home countries, but it’s hawked as a way to earn money and make great friends while seeing the world. All this to say: the counselors’ cabins of American summer camps are full of People With Accents.
And so it was I found myself befriending one tall and tanned Australian lifeguard. She was confident, older, a woman of the world, spunky, didn’t care what anyone else thought of her. I was still, at 21, mired in a teenage mindset that placed great importance on other people’s expectations, and here was someone who didn’t care if she defied them. While perhaps not exactly love at first sight, you could say she had me at “g’day.”
From friendship, we progressed into the heightened courtship antics particular to summer camp: passing notes; sneaking into each other’s cabins, stargazing in dark fields, painfully parting at curfew, arranging our days off to coincide. At summer’s end, we faced the question of all great summer romances: does this relationship exist in the real world? We found ourselves answering “yes.” But 30 days later, I learned that that answer was relative, and that, in the eyes of the U.S. government, young love (and any unmarried love, no matter how old) was irrelevant. Jodi’s visa end-date was nigh, and she was going to have to leave.
Here is the moral of our story, boys and girls: if you find yourself on the cusp of a bi-national relationship, ask yourself whether you can imagine the rest of your life without that person. Ask yourself if you could ever be happy with one of the other drab, accentless, American fish in the sea. If the answer is yes, run for the hills.
All couples in this situation struggle—including those in heterosexual relationships. Many bounce around visa restrictions for years or else rush into marriage as a stopgap measure, which can come with its own set of problems. When they are married, it can take years for a partner’s Green Card to come through, and those years can involve a great deal of time apart.
Get ready for months at a time of conducting your relationship at a distance, or else for the potential sacrificing your own career or family by joining your partner in their country. And even if everything works out smoothly, whether you settle in your country or your partner’s, one of you will always be far from your home and family, a situation that can cause great stress and pain for everyone involved. Most likely, your children will grow up with at least one set of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins living half a world away. If, like most people, you have a limited amount of vacation time, you will have to spend all of it visiting faraway family rather than exploring new places you’ve always wanted to see. Unless you undergo the permanent residency process in both your countries (which usually involves living in the other country), you may have to undergo uncomfortable scrutiny and interrogation every time you visit your partner’s native land. Let this be a lesson to all MASH-playing twelve-year-olds: there’s more to The Dreamy Accent than meets the ear.
I didn’t know any of this when Jodi and I decided to continue our relationship after that fateful summer’s end. Jodi knew some of it, having been in a relationship with an American for a few years in the past. But even as I began to learn the scope of what was involved, I couldn’t believe that there was simply no answer for same-sex binational couples. Zilch. Radio silence from the government; just a helpful, if horribly depressing, fact sheet from Lambda Legal detailing their advice for same-sex couples dealing with immigration issues.
I’m lucky that my partner is from an industrialized nation with a rather progressive government, one that would not only let me immigrate there on the basis of our partnership, but that would let us live together without fear for our lives. Our story would be much different if she were from, say, Iran, one of the seven countries where the penalty for homosexuality is death, or Somalia, where the penalty is either life in prison, death, or expulsion from the country. I know which I’d choose—but then where would we go? There would be no nation in which we could legally live. In all, 78 countries criminalize homosexuality. I was very, very lucky to fall for an Australian.
And I was also lucky to be born an American. Looking at that list of 78 countries, I am so grateful that, at the age of twelve, I was even playing MASH in the first place. That I was not sold into sex-trafficking. That I was given a free public education, despite being female. That I haven’t been stoned to death for having sex outside of wedlock. That I am allowed to drive and work outside the home. That, despite our legal marriage not being recognized in certain U.S. states or by the federal government, there was somewhere we could legally get married, and there are some other places that even recognize it.
When I grow up, I could live in a mansion in my native land with my tall, dark and handsome husband, have 2.5 kids and just as many cars—if I wanted to. I could be President of my country if anyone would vote for me. We have a whole holiday dedicated to thankfulness. And we have a whole lot to be thankful for.
I love my country, despite its shortcomings. I wish it loved me—and my beloved— back.
 State-sponsored Homophobia: A world survey of laws criminalising same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults Lucas Paoli Itaborahy, ILGA, May 2012 http://old.ilga.org/Statehomophobia/ILGA_State_Sponsored_Homophobia_2012.pdf
Next week follow our heroine and her lusciously-accented love through their escapades crossing a U.S. border for the first (of many) times during their relationship.