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Brandon Perlberg Headshot

Stealing Lives (And Getting Away With It)

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AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

There are 81 people in Washington who owe me my life back.

More than a year ago, I was forced into exile because the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevents me from sponsoring my same-sex British partner for a green card. We had lived together happily in New York for seven years, but his right to remain in the U.S. was ending. He had to return to the UK, and I went with him.

I lost my home, my career, years of hard-earned savings and proximity to loved ones. I arrived in a new country where for nearly two months no one would rent us a place to live, and for almost a year no one would give me a job. Having my life in America taken from me was impossibly difficult on every imaginable level. But it was nothing compared with trying to start a new one from scratch as an unemployed 34-year-old in a foreign country.

This wasn't a fluke. It wasn't bad luck. The hit I took is the direct consequence of reckless and reprehensible legislating. More than half of the country is looking to the Supreme Court to strike down Section 3 of DOMA, but the Supreme Court isn't responsible for robbing me and thousands of other exiled gay Americans of our lives. That was the doing of one president and 427 senators and members of Congress who voted for DOMA. Eighty-one of them still hold elected office. None of them is being held accountable.

I really shouldn't have to explain why gay Americans deserve to be included in so-called comprehensive immigration reform. It ought to be pretty obvious that there's something wrong when lawmakers are bending over backwards to keep undocumented immigrants in the country but are actively working to prevent citizens like me from ever coming home. Yet only a handful of those 81 DOMA-creating legislators have done anything to remedy the suffering they inflicted upon so many blameless Americans. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a notable exception, fought to include LGBT families as part of immigration reform. But the voices in opposition sting with such vitriol and hatred that you could be forgiven for thinking it was the gay Americans who had robbed the lawmakers of their lives.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pledged to do "everything in [his] power" to keep LGBT families out of the bill. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) derisively refers to bringing gay Americans back from exile as a "social issue." And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has called LGBT immigration equality a "landmine," a wartime analogy that is particularly poignant given the applicability of that familiar Vietnam-era refrain, "if you love your Uncle Sam, bring 'em home."

And that, Senators, is the single and humble thing that those of us who no longer enjoy the luxury of living in the United States are asking for.

These and the scores of other anti-gay legislators in Washington, who have been privileged and blessed enough not to personally know the deep sacrifice and hardship of being forced into exile, have cold-heartedly abandoned the thousands of us who do. And they've gotten away with it. They've gotten away with voicing their "opposition" without anyone noting that they've declined to so much as utter a single word that could even conceivably qualify as a legitimate rationale. It would be career ending for a politician to argue that black Americans should be denied the right to sponsor the foreign partners they love for immigration status. Yet when that same unthinkable brand of hate mongering is applied against gay Americans, scant few come to our defense.

There are four Democrats who could have made a difference. Given their influential positions on the Judiciary Committee, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) could have and should have insisted that the comprehensive immigration bill be amended in committee to include LGBT families. But they did not. And to those of us for whom accountability actually means something, we must never forget that LGBT immigration equality failed because it did not have their support.

By caving to empty Republican threats, these four senators became tacit accomplices in one of the most harmful strains of bigotry our country has seen in decades. As a senator of a state that only weeks ago passed marriage equality, Sen. Franken's cowardice betrays the values of the people he was elected to represent. As a former mayor of San Francisco, Sen. Feinstein's is appalling for reasons so obvious that they require no explanation whatsoever. But as two of the 81 lawmakers still in Washington today who voted for DOMA, the refusal of Sens. Schumer and Durbin to go to the mat is even worse, because for each of them, their inaction is tantamount to the casting of a second vote in favor of that life-destroying law. And like their Republican confrères, they, too, are getting away with it.

And so my partner and I, and our exiled friends in Canada and the Netherlands and South Africa and elsewhere around the world, are learning important lessons about what are and are not American virtues. Accountability is dead. As such, we are reduced to praying that five of the nine unelected Supreme Court justices who will decide the fate of DOMA will recognize that in doing so, they will decide our fates as well. Because if they do not, we are lost.

I may be gay, and I may live in a foreign land, but I am still an American. There are 81 people in Washington who don't deserve to be.