Worlds Apart

Federal law gives gay citizens with foreign partners tough choices: Leave the U.S. Lose your love. Break the law.

The current system protects against shams, however. Couples who've been married less than two years get a "conditional resident" visa, and must present evidence after two years that they are still married to get the condition removed. Applicants face a barrage of questions meant to root out fraud — which can include how a husband takes his coffee or the color of a wife's toothbrush.

"I don't think it really matters if it's same-sex or opposite-sex; the questions about the intimacy are the same," says San Francisco immigration attorney Courtney McDermed. Still, the issue whether to include permanent partners in immigration reform is divisive. Some pro-immigration organizations — especially religious-based ones — say inviting gays on board will tank the entire bill.

"It threatens the conservative and evangelical support that has taken five years in acquiring," says the Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, director of the Sacramento-based National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which represents 25,000 churches. "Right now, we're having difficulty getting one Republican senator to support the Schumer proposal. With the same-sex partner, it will be an even greater hill to climb."

Erik and Angel, who is here illegally, have decided to stay in the country to be together.
Julie Michelle
Erik and Angel, who is here illegally, have decided to stay in the country to be together.
Angel and Erik are out about being gay, but Angel must live under the radar of immigration authorities.
Julie Michelle
Angel and Erik are out about being gay, but Angel must live under the radar of immigration authorities.

Still, advocates point out that the UAFA has the largest number of cosponsors of any individual immigration bill in Congress.

"This is the little gay issue that could," says Steve Ralls, spokesman for Immigration Equality, which represents gay immigrants. The New York–based nonprofit recently opened a Washington office to ramp up its lobbying.

"We're hearing that if the Democratic leadership comes up with a bill that satisfies [GOP senators] on other issues, they won't try to stop the bill because it helps LGBT families. Among the controversies, I don't believe we rank terribly high on that list."

There's no doubting that Latinos, because of their sheer numbers, are the face of the incendiary immigration debate. Yet until there's reform, thousands of gays will also continue to live here illegally. They just aren't as visible. In cities like San Francisco, they blend seamlessly into cosmopolitan gay life.

On the opening weekend of Sex and the City 2, Angel strutted into the Sundance Kabuki movie theater doing his best Samantha Jones: six-inch heels, satin cocktail dress, and a long wig. He laced his arm into that of his six-year partner, Erik (who came as, well, Erik). The pair would probably qualify as a conservative senator's nightmare, yet in San Francisco, they hardly scored more than a few bemused stares.

This city allows Angel to be oh-so-out, yet he's still under the radar on another front. While the couple sipped cocktails at Basil Thai Restaurant and Bar in SOMA, Angel (back in his everyday male garb) quieted his voice and shot a glance at the table behind him when talking about not having papers. (His name has been changed for this story.)

Angel first came to the Bay Area from the Philippines in 2000 to make some quick money working as a caretaker so he could go home to start a party planning business. But he ended up being offered a religious visa to work as choir director for the nondenominational Redeemers Church of Silicon Valley, a mostly Filipino church now called Good Shepherd Community Church in Milpitas. (Angel had directed church and company choirs for 15 years in the Philippines.) He seized the opportunity to become legal, yet the setup had its difficulties.

Angel says the church paid him a maximum of $700 a month. The visa didn't allow him to work outside of the church, but with such a small salary, he had no choice. He kept a side job as a caregiver, and, at one point, when his hours at the church increased to more than 30 a week, he'd wake up at 4 a.m. to work for a few hours before heading to the church at 10 a.m.

Angel also claims that the church was never wild about the fact that he was gay. After a pastor in the Philippines wrote in a recommendation letter that Angel should lift weights to bring out his masculinity, the elders board asked him whether he was gay, to which he remembers answering, "What you see is what you get. I am what I am." He says they asked if he was practicing, and he said no, since he didn't have a boyfriend at the time. Angel says some board members frowned on him wearing pink shirts, or blond highlights in his black hair. Finally, he claims they asked him to move to Milpitas from his place in San Bruno in order to stay away from San Francisco's "bad influences."

It was in a San Francisco bar in 2004, in fact, that Angel met Erik and moved in with him two years later. They are an endearingly opposite pair. Angel, 40, is a fashion plate with groomed eyebrows, feminine gestures, and a nonstop smile. His relationship advice, conveyed in a heavily accented sing-song voice, is: "Find someone who loves you more!" Erik, 33, is a tall and perpetually good-natured nonprofit fundraiser from Pennsylvania who is happy to let Angel have center stage. Both come from conservative Christian families — Erik's has disowned him for three years — with whom they have tacitly agreed not to discuss their sexual orientation. But their chemistry is undeniable. "He loves me for what I am," Angel says, and often pats Erik on the arm while talking.

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