My story begins on the banks of the Mersey. Michael Roach is an ordinary man from Liverpool. He is an actor and directs stage productions. He has caring family and friends. He doesn't break the law. A-level educated, Michael Roach is your everyday twenty year old man going about his life. But since 2011 Michael Roach is no longer allowed into the United States. Why? Well, Michael thinks it's because he's gay.
The Defence of Marriage Act - often simply known by the acronym DOMA - is the law Michael Roach believes is preventing him from visiting his partner in the US. DOMA is a federal law that refuses to recognise gay relationships. Michael thinks that intolerance has found it's way into immigration policy to stand between gay couples.
Crossing the Atlantic
Britain and America have an agreement over travel. The Visa Waiver Programme allows citizens of both countries to travel across the Atlantic and holiday for up to 90 days without a visa. As long as you don't spend more time abroad than at home, you can travel freely between the two countries as often as you like. And that's what Michael Roach was doing.
In the two years running up to August 2011 Michael obeyed all US immigration rules and was able to visit America seven times, spending seven months in the States with the man he loves, Carl Barlow. Carl is a 30 year old medical student living in Tennessee.
With his reasonably generous student loan, whatever money Michael can save from doing work in the UK, and with the support of his family, the couple can live within their means without being any burden on the US taxpayer for the duration of Michaels stay.
|Together - Michael Roach and Carl Barlow|
Carl is working towards qualification as an anaesthetist, and coupled with his commitment as a parent he has limited opportunity to visit the UK.
So, why wont US immigration let Michael visit Carl? On his last trip to the US in August 2011 Michael was told - even though he had not broken any immigration law - that the number of trips he was making was excessive under the waiver scheme. In order to visit again he would need a visitors visa.
That visa application cost Michael a total of £150 as it needed to be submitted to the US Embassy in London, where every applicant is required to be personally interviewed by a Consular Officer. Following his application and the interview - in which it was made clear he intended to visit his partner Carl - the visa was denied.
Michael maintains that the unofficial reason he was given was that federal law doesn't recognise his relationship with Carl, and that there is no prospect of any person in the US having a same sex relationship formally recognised. Put simply, if Michael was in a straight relationship he argues the concept of co-dependence would be recognised, and he would be allowed a visitors visa or a fiancé visa.
Michael Roach explains why he feels he is the victim of discrimination
Distressingly, having been denied a visitors visa, Michael is not allowed to fall back on the waiver scheme and is barred from entering the United States. His only hope is paying the visa fee again and again, and visiting the US Embassy repeatedly, where another Consular Officer will make another decision that is based on the same facts he has already presented. A decision that will in any case be clouded with suspicion that federal law is influencing visa decisions and leading to discrimination.
DOMA exists to define marriage and to oppose recognition of gay relationships in law. That law prevents immigration officials from entertaining any possibility of a allowing a gay person to enter America to settle and live with their partner as a legal resident. If such a law exists, is it too far fetched to believe Michael, and to believe that even as a visitor he wouldn't be welcome?
It was a big mistake for Michael to reveal details of his sexuality
I spoke to other gay people and asked for their reaction to Michaels predicament. Posing questions on Twitter, I heard from nervous people who are continually engaged in an immigration game of cat and mouse to see their partners in America. Afraid to be identified, they say it was a big mistake for Michael to reveal details of his sexuality and to be honest about his reasons for travelling to the US. But that's not the full picture. I've also been told the opposite by gay people such as Karin Bogliolo. I heard how she had been allowed into America but is having to fight for the right to remain. However, one thing that I have consistently heard from US and British citizens I've spoken to is that the law in America regarding gay couples is not fair.
With unanswered questions and a mixture of experiences shared with me, I approached the US Embassy in London to ask them directly about Michael Roach's visa application. I also wanted to know if DOMA was influencing their decisions and preventing gay people from travelling to America. The embassy press office replied, saying "I cannot comment directly on Mr Roach and Mr Barlow's case. We are never able to comment on individual cases." However they did agree to an interview to talk about visa policy.
I was told that entry to the US would not be denied simply because of sexuality, and that consul staff look at an individuals circumstances, with particular focus on the applicants links to their home country. The extent of those links is then used to determine whether there is a risk of someone remaining in the States illegally. I told the US Embassy 'the perception of the gay community is that they need to be careful not to say that they are gay, they fear that if they say that on visa applications it will be held against them.' Visas Branch Chief William Laidlaw responded to say he hoped that more could be done to convince people this was not the case. The parts of our interview relating to visa policy can be listened to here. Mr Laidlaw was unable to comment on matters of law that would require a statement from Congress.
William Laidlaw, Visa's Branch Chief, US Embassy London talks about visa policy
The Defence of Marriage Act - DOMA
DOMA, the law that I'd been hearing in conversation time and again since first speaking to Michael Roach, dates back to 1996 during President Bill Clinton's administration. Section 3 of this legislation sets out the federal position that they will not recognise gay marriage saying "the word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word 'spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife."
Fast & furious - DOMA explained in 90 seconds
Whether Michael and Carl intend to marry right now is not the issue. The greater issue is that in federal law gay couples cannot enter into a permanent relationship that is legally recognised. If Carl and Michael decided tomorrow that they wanted to go beyond being partners who occasionally visit each other, and commit to living together in the US as a couple that would not be possible.
|Carl & Michael relaxing on holiday|
16,000 British citizens affected
Looking beyond Michael Roach's case and whether or not DOMA is having an impact on visa policy I started to see a pattern of gay British citizens either living in the US or hoping to make a life there with American partners. It didn't take long to work out that if there's hundreds of thousands of British people living in America then there will be a sizeable gay British population living in the US. In fact that population is in the region of 16,000 people**.
|Not just an American issue. The US is home for many British citizens*|
Democrats and Republicans divided
Critics of any amendment to DOMA tend to come from the Republican side of the political divide. They argue that no state should be forced to recognise gay relationships and that DOMA protects individual states from having a federal position on gay marriage forced upon them. The Republican position also embraces the concept of protecting morality and tradition, with presidential hopeful Ron Paul stating in February 2011 "The Defence of Marriage Act was enacted in 1996 to stop Big Government in Washington from re-defining marriage and forcing its definition on the States. I believe that marriage is between one man and one woman and must be protected."
Since February 2011 the Obama administration has stated that DOMA is unconstitutional and that they will not seek to defend it in court. But the President doesn't have the power to repeal, so DOMA remains law and it continues to be perceived as unfair and legitimate in varying weights and measures.
In April 2011, Democrat opponents of DOMA attempted to introduce the first in a number of Acts designed to amend the existing law. The Uniting American Families Act if enacted would create the concept of a 'permanent partner'. Basically, that would give gay couples the same rights as straight ones.
|The struggle between modern Democrats & traditional Republicans|
Once a bill is presented to the House of Representatives successfully, changing law needs a two thirds majority in any vote. But as mentioned, the House of Representatives is dominated by Republicans who have fifty more seats than the Democrats. Therefore, even though DOMA has been described by judges and the President as unconstitutional the chance of either the Uniting American Families Act, or the immigration policy reforming Reuniting Families Act being passed into law without a Democrat majority are slim.
DOMA on trial
In addition to the political debate, the judiciary is becoming increasingly involved. In February 2012, in the case of Golinski v OPM, Judge Jeffrey S White made the point that just because law has been passed, it doesn't make it acceptable if that law is based on prejudice. In finding for Golinski in respect of rights to shared federal health benefits, Judge White stated that article 3 of DOMA - the part that deals with same sex marriage - is unconstitutional, adding "Prejudice, we are beginning to understand, rises not from malice or hostile animus alone. It may result as well from insensitivity caused by simple want of careful, rational reflection or from some instinctive mechanism to guard against people who appear to be different in some respects from ourselves."
In the absence of a political solution and with a growing tendency for individual cases to be settled in court, it occurred to me that there could perhaps never be a political answer with the courtroom being the only place to resolve conflict. I asked Professor Bill Jones of Liverpool Hope University whether that was a possibility, and he feared that could indeed be the case.
Professor Bill Jones offers an insight into US politics and the forces at play in the legal process
Rarely has an issue so deeply divided Congress, with Democrats and Republicans standing fast in their trenches with no common ground in the bleak no man's land that lies between them. Both sides have laid claim to the moral high ground. The President stands at the head of his Democrat legions knowing he needs numerical superiority to defeat the massed ranks of Republicans. Come November, Obama may have those troops as the Presidential election promises a shift in Congress to redraw the political battle lines in favour of the victorious incumbent. Some will say this could be Obama's finest hour and a chance to stand alongside the nations greatest advocates of civil rights. Others will warn this is a crusade that could be described as a charge of the enlightened brigade. Nothing more than an ill advised attempt to undermine the will of the people that will be rightly punished on polling day. Watching the presidential campaign unfold gay couples have learnt to be patient and optimistic.
Britain to intervene
However, patience and optimism don't guarantee that law will change or that politicians will enter into meaningful discussions to find that common ground. Whether change is appropriate in America is for the people and their elected representatives at Congress to decide. However, as British citizens are affected here and in the US, dialogue needs to be opened and the impact on our citizens needs to considered. With that in mind I approached Michael Roach's Member of Parliament Stephen Twigg MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education. I presented the facts of his case, spoke of his fears and revealed the bigger picture regarding the gay British population in the US and how their rights needed to be considered.
Mr Twigg has various concerns regarding US policy and the British governments role in ensuring this country protects and advances the rights of the 16,000 British gay residents. Answering questions about US foreign policy he highlighted how the current administration is demanding a better record in respect of sexual equality from countries that hope to receive aid and development support from America. That's a position that Stephen Twigg considers to be contradictory when compared to the USA's current stance in respect of gay couples in their own country.
Whilst acknowledging the challenges of immigration policy, Mr Twigg believes the US is overreacting in Michael Roach's case, as he is only asking to visit America, not to live there. Michael's case is now going to be raised with the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and with the US Ambassador. Looking at the bigger issue of protecting the UK ex-patriot gay population in America, Stephen Twigg said 'An important part of the responsibility of the British government is to look after the interests of British citizens wherever they are around the world, so I think its absolutely right to say that the thousands of gay British citizens who live in America should be afforded protection by the British government. They should also be afforded protection by the American government.'
Stephen Twigg MP, gives his opinion on DOMA and the impact on British citizens
The issue of DOMA and equal rights is no longer a matter solely for the United States. Now the British Government will be examining Michael Roach's case and looking to America for some answers about the way they are treating not only him, but the 16,000 gay British nationals living in their country.
British and gay in America
One of those sixteen thousand people is Karin Bogliolo. Karin is married and lives with her wife Judy in California. Before finding a new life in the US six years ago Karin's roots spread wide across England's green and pleasant land. As a child and then teenager she called Devon and Northamptonshire home, finally moving north of the border to Scotland as an adult, where she remained in the fragrant shade of hawthorn blossom for over twenty five years. A lifetime away from the tranquillity of the Highlands, in March 2012 a test case green card application has been submitted to US Immigration requesting residency for Karin and federal acceptance that she is legally married to Judy. Encouraged by their attorney, the prominent gay rights litigator Lavi Soloway, if Karin is granted residency it will be a landmark decision. However Judy and Karin fear they will be rejected with DOMA and federal law again being cited as the immovable object that bars their way.
Remaining optimistic regardless of the outcome, Karin Bogliolo told me about her struggle to remain in America, being detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and how as a British citizen abroad it hadn't occurred to her that she could expect any support from the British government.
Karin Bogliolo - one of the thousands of British citizens living in the USA
From the comfort of my own sofa, armed with coffee, scraps of paper and a calculator I flicked through facts, figures and research to create the demographic dilemma that is the 16,000 British gay nationals living in America in an unequal society. Speaking to one person caught up in this transatlantic tale of love, politics and law has become a lesson in social orienteering. Plotting a route from one couple to the next, faceless statistics have become people with stories to tell. Many of the people I found aren't like Karin Bogliolo. They're not part of the 16,000 ex patriot gay community. They are part of a dark mass of countless couples who remain divided, unable to live with their partners in America.
|DOMA: the number of British and US nationals kept apart is unclear|
Other couples told me about their hopes and fears, allowing me to share them with you. Where requested, I have used false names to protect the identity of people who would rather not be identified
Katie and Gina are from Northamptonshire and California respectively. Gina was detained for 24 hours and deported on her last visit to the UK. Immigration told her that - at 37 - she was too old to be in a long distance relationship. Rather than continuing to visit each other raising the suspicions of border agents, the couple decided settling in Britain would provide the best escape route from DOMA. That option has been prevented because they cant prove that they were a couple in America, where they lived together for two years. During those two years in the States Katie was a student, and was not allowed to have joint bank accounts or other ties that UK immigration need to see as proof that a genuine relationship exists. Katie is now worried she could be stopped from visiting the US and the difficulties they have experienced over the last five years will escalate. Describing the British government as 'not helpful' Gina holds faint hope of any political intervention by the UK to influence the DOMA debate, adding 'Its difficult to believe that the British government would be able to do anything directly to help a UK citizen in America.’
Graham and Nick left their life in Florida behind and returned to the UK so they could live as a couple, and enter into a civil partnership after being 'forced into exile by DOMA'. Six years later and with no change in the law Graham welcomes the idea of the British government intervening now - 'We had no idea that contacting the British Government would help us in any way. If we were able to find any help that would assist us in returning home to the US, then we would gladly ask.'
The Home Office states that it is the duty of the government to use its influence globally 'to change culture and attitudes and promote equality'. This is an opportunity for that sentiment to be tested and for the extent of that influence to be gauged by the British citizens who have made America their home, and by those wanting to be with the partners they love living peacefully in the land of the free.
I never want anyone to be torn apart from their loved ones
|Congressman Mike Honda|
"As a person who was separated from family members in internment camps during my childhood, I never want anyone to be torn apart from their loved ones just on the basis of who they are. I proudly sponsored H.R. 1796, the Reuniting Families Act, because it not only reunites same-sex couples, but also protects the civil rights of LGBT individuals and ensures that they are treated equitably within our broken immigration system. No matter how difficult it will be to pass comprehensive immigration reform in Congress, I know that one day we'll be able to reunite couples like Judy and Karin, and countless other British LGBT individuals separated from their loved ones."
Congressman Honda didn't say 'I have a dream'. I half expected him to. I'm guessing he would have been embarrassed for me to suggest that choice of words. But privately, sitting here, writing the last few words of my article and pondering the contents, I couldn't help but wonder if like me, they'd crossed his mind too.
What do you think? Should the British government be lobbying the US for change? Do you support Democrat demands for reform, or do you believe Republicans are protecting tradition and the sovereignty of states? Add your comments here and join the debate on social media site Pinterest by clicking on the image below.