Raleigh News & Observer
Sunday, July 27, 2003


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Immigration Law Another Hurdle for US Gays

As a gay couple, Glen Tig, a North Carolina native, and Chitpol Siddhivarn, a Thai citizen, had few choices under U.S. immigration law.

Had they been married, Siddhivarn -- in the country on a temporary visa -- could have applied to live in the United States permanently as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. But because the United States doesn't recognize gay marriage, to stay together, they were forced into nothing short of taking their relationship into exile, choosing Canada, where same-sex couples have the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples in immigration and in many other facets of life.

Chitpol Siddhivarn, left, and Glen Tig share cupcakes as they mark Canada Day in Toronto, where they were forced to make their home after Siddhivarn's U.S. visa was canceled.

Aaron Harris for the News & Observer

Now Tig, a psychotherapist, commutes from Toronto every other week to see his patients in Carrboro, and Siddhivarn, a periodontal surgeon, is scouting graduate schools to qualify to practice in Canada.

"[Canada] really is a country where equal means equal and you don't have to fight for it," said Tig, 47, who expects to be a Canadian citizen in three years.

Gay marriages are allowed in Ontario, and legislation is pending to legalize them across Canada. Yet the men say they haven't yet made their own wedding plans.

"We're still reeling from having our lives uprooted so drastically," Tig said.

Thousands of same-sex couples in the United States face similar legal obstacles. The Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force in New York City is lobbying for U.S. laws to respect long-term same-sex relationships between Americans and foreign citizens -- knowing it may be a long time before the United States recognizes gay marriage, if ever.

The proposed Permanent Partners Immigration Act would give gay partners the same rights as married couples if they can prove they have a long-term, financially interdependent relationship, among other criteria. The legislation faces an uphill battle, but it has 108 co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives, including Rep. Brad Miller, a Raleigh Democrat and the only co-sponsor from North Carolina. Miller said it is the right thing to do.

Friends, former neighbors and relatives of Tig and 37-year-old Siddhivarn support the bill. "Most couples would have been shredded by what the men have experienced," said Dr. Cory Annis, one of the couple's closest friends, who practices in Carrboro.

"It really is a very pointed thing to realize they can immigrate to Canada so easily, and they can even be married there," she said. "But here.we're not even close to recognizing gay and lesbian people as equal citizens."

Friends described Tig and Siddhivarn as opposites who attracted. Tig, an outgoing guy, works in the world of emotions, specializing in helping gay clients in psychotherapy. He has been an activist since 1974, when he helped start a gay student group at UNC-Chapel Hill. In recent years, he co-founded the Ruby Slipper Dance Asylum, which sponsors swing dances and lessons for gay couples.

The more introverted Siddhivarn arrived at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1998 to complete a doctoral degree in oral biology. Siddhivarn's world was science: researching how to stimulate growth in bone cells.

From the start, the men talked about how to keep Siddhivarn in the United States, but his visa obligated him to leave after completing his research. So they decided to move to Canada. In January, while they were visiting Canada to take care of paperwork for the move, U.S. officials canceled Siddhivarn's visa. The men are unsure why, but he was not allowed to return.

Stunned, Tig and Siddhivarn scrambled to find an apartment in Toronto. Tig rushed back to Chapel Hill to pack their belongings -- and Siddhivarn's research materials so he could meet a 4-month deadline to finish writing his PhD dissertation.

The move has been tough: The couple faces more than $80,000 in bills for immigration costs, legal fees, and other expenses that have come about as a result of their decision to stay together. To pay the bills, they are selling land on the Haw River which they originally intended to use for retirement.

Both men plan to practice in Canada eventually, although it will mean navigating various licensing processes and additional graduate work for Siddhivarn at a Canadian college. For the foreseeable future, Tig says he will continue commuting back to his practice in Carrboro on alternating weeks.

Siddhivarn said he once thought that America was a "great democracy country, a land of freedom where everybody is welcome." But when he arrived in the US in 1998, Siddhivarn said he was horrified by the news of the death of Matthew Sheppard, and by politicians who got by with public statements against gays.

"And then in January," said Siddhivarn, "when they cancelled my visa and wouldn't let me go back to our home in North Carolina, I just couldn't believe it was real." He said, "I will never think of America in the same way."

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