ELISE AMENDOLA/AP IMAGES
A report issued in 2006 by two nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch and Immigration Equality, describes the written response made in 1975 by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to an American citizen’s petition to sponsor a foreign same-sex partner for legal residency in the United States. The INS denied the petition for the following reason: “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.” Except perhaps in the explicitness of language, federal policy toward same-sex binational couples has changed little since then. On June 3 of this year, Congress held its first-ever hearing on the plight of such couples and brought attention to the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), sponsored in the Senate by Patrick Leahy and in the House by Jerrold Nadler (and subsequently folded into a larger immigration reform bill). Introduced repeatedly in various forms since 2000, the legislation would add the United States to the ranks of sixteen other countries–including Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Israel and South Africa–that draw no distinction between gay and straight binational couples for immigration purposes. In the words of a supportive Washington Post editorial, passage of UAFA would “right a gross unfairness.”
The restriction on the immigration rights of same-sex noncitizen partners is relatively obscure, but the harm done to those it affects is no less than that caused by the widely debated federal laws and policies that render gay people second-class citizens, like the Defense of Marriage Act and the military’s disastrous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And the scope of the injury is not small. According to the report by Human Rights Watch and Immigration Equality, census data suggest that more than 35,000 binational same-sex couples live in the United States. No one knows how many others live separated by national borders or have emigrated elsewhere in order to remain together. The existence of such an immigration policy, and the uphill battle to eliminate it, demonstrate just how solidly a formal preference for heterosexuality is built into the legal architecture of the state.
It is not really news that inhabitants of the United States are governed by what historian Margot Canaday calls, in the title of her excellent book, a “straight state.” For some time now, scholars of sexuality (following in the footsteps of those who have studied and challenged the race and gender hierarchies embedded in state policies and actions) have professed the analytical goal of what historian Lisa Duggan, writing in 1994, called “queering the state.” These scholars have argued that the supposed naturalness of the heterosexual couple, and the unnaturalness of alternatives, is presumed and reinforced in the ordinary workings of government. Canaday’s substantial contribution is to trace, in gripping and at times horrifying detail, exactly how the United States came to operate in this fashion over the course of much of the twentieth century. The Straight State provides a compelling history of the designation of “the homosexual as the anticitizen.”