You’re at a dinner party. You’re attracted to someone sitting across the table. You ask them out on a date. You start doing everything together. You fall in love. You’re exclusive. You move in together. You’re a couple for three years. You want to get married.
You live in Beijing. You’re American. Your partner is Chinese. You’re gay.
This is the story of Steven Hill and Bei Hai, who met in Beijing in 2010. Hill had lived there for three years, teaching math in an English immersion program at China Agricultural University before he met Hai, who worked as a retail trainer for MAC Cosmetics.
“I just wanted to be with him all the time,” says Hill, a tall, trim and tan twenty-eight-year-old with a slight beard, and never without glasses over his bright blue eyes. He’d had trouble finding a connection with Chinese guys until then, dating expats like himself, but when he met Hai there was just an instant understanding. And for Hai, a fit twenty-nine-year-old with dark coiffed hair and deep brown eyes, it felt the same, with an added bonus.
“Steven is my ideal man: handsome, sweet,” Hai says, adding, “And if I were in a relationship with a Chinese guy, there is no future, no marriage, no adoption, nothing.”
Being gay in China is less taboo than many people may assume. Because China’s is not a religious society, there is no moral outrage rooted in Christian or other spiritual values. Nor is there much of a vocal, divisive political discussion over gay rights. As an issue, it is largely invisible to the public. The real cultural focus is on progeny and male children, which a gay relationship makes impossible. That is the stem of its unacceptability in China: a practical, familial consideration to end the family line.
Hill had always intended to leave Beijing in 2011, after his three-year tenure at the university was up. He is a well-educated, bilingual American and, as he approached thirty, wanted to pursue a higher-paying career back home. But once he met Hai, Hill was forced to chose between his love and his home. There was no way for Hai to easily immigrate to the U.S. since they couldn’t simply apply for a green card, move there together and get married, like heterosexual couples do.
Because immigration is a wholly federal process, it didn’t matter that Hill is from — and would return to — Maryland, a state in which gay marriage was legalized in 2012. The Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996, barred same-sex couples from receiving federal marriage benefits, including the right to sponsor foreign partners for permanent residence.
“That’s why DOMA was so bad,” Hill says. “Even as states were changing laws, it didn’t really matter for the real things gay couples were going through.”
And so from 2011 to 2013, Hill and Hai recommitted to living in Beijing, and embarked on months of in-depth research to find out where they could move, together. They lived week-to-week, never making big plans for the future. They had many friends, including several other gay couples, and an active social life. They moved in together, sharing a great apartment in Beijing, as well as two cats, then took their first big vacation together to the Philippines. They were both out in their everyday life in the city, not hiding their relationship at work or among peers. But the couple felt they had reached a plateau, with no way to take their lives to the next level, including marriage and kids.
During these years, Hill largely gave up on the idea of ever permanently living in America again.
“The U.S. was never on the list,” he says. But many other countries were. He applied to dozens of jobs in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, all of which have common domestic partner laws that recognize couples who can prove they have lived together for at least one year. On his smartphone, Hill kept a large Evernote file entitled “Mission: Move To Canada,” including hundreds of articles about obtaining a Canadian visa. Yet none of these opportunities came through.
In early 2013, Hill moved home to Maryland. At the very least, they thought, they would continue a long-distance relationship while Hill made a plan of action from the U.S. Hai came with him, intending to visit with Hill’s family for a few weeks, and was granted a six-month tourist visa. This gave them time to plan.
DOMA was under review by the Supreme Court at this time, and the couple knew that if the law was repealed, they’d have a shot at filing paperwork and getting married during Hai’s stay. If not, Hai would be forced to return to China. But Hill was hopeful. Despite the steep uphill battle, he felt that something — marriage equality or immigration reform — had to give.
They went on a road trip across the country for a few weeks, a much-needed reprieve from the relentless paperwork and stress. Hill showed off America. When they were in Vegas after what Hill described as “an exceptionally positive gambling stint,” they bought a ring and officially got engaged. They couldn’t elope in Nevada — where gay marriage is illegal — and getting married back in Maryland wouldn’t help Hai’s immigration status, but they went forward on the hope that DOMA would be repealed.
On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, forcing the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages that have been approved by the states. This gave Hill and Hai three months to get married and file all the paperwork for Hai’s green card, an infamous amount of red tape and paper cuts.
They had no idea how long it would take the government to get their ducks in a row and begin allowing international LGBT couples to apply, but they had a clock ticking down on when Hai would have to leave the country.
After wading through a sea of documents, they found The DOMA Project. A pro-bono initiative from the New York and L.A. law firm Masliah & Soloway, the DOMA Project works to stop the breakups of gay and lesbian couples through deportations. Noemi Masliah and Lavi Soloway, partners at the firm, were both born outside of the U.S. themselves. Their project has seen cases drag on for decades, during which couples are living apart for years, across continents, struggling for visits let alone weddings, because of DOMA’s restrictions on one partner’s immigration status.
Attorneys there advised Hill of his options, all of which risked Hai having to move back to China if their paperwork wasn’t properly filed before his tourist visa was up. For months Hill and Hai spent countless hours on the phone with lawyers and administrators, trying to push through the process. Hai’s family back in Beijing mailed him physical copies of his birth certificate and other personal records. Hill gathered the same for himself. The stress of not knowing whether he was about to marry the love of his life or watch him go back to China was exhausting.
“People like to hear the fairy tale story,” Hill says. “We were so sure we wanted to get married. We just had to figure out how we were going to do it.”
Hill was job hunting during this time, applying to large companies where his math, business and bilingual skills would be valued. But he had not yet found a job, and the immigration office demanded that he be able to financially support Hai. Hill’s parents had to co-sign the application as supporters, and the filing fees alone were thousands of dollars, draining the couple’s savings.
Finally, as the weeks ran down to days on Hai’s visa, their paperwork was filed. They got married on October 25, 2013, with a small crowd of family and close friends in downtown Annapolis. Now it was up to the U.S. government to decide if Hai could stay.
An immigration officer was assigned to their case this past March. They interviewed Hill and Hai, verified their documentation, and granted Hai a two-year probationary green card. In two years time, an immigration officer will check in on them again to make sure they’re still together.
These past few months have been one big sigh of relief for the couple. Hill is now a senior associate at the American Chemical Society Office of International Activities in D.C. Hai is working for MAC Cosmetics again; his bosses at the company in Beijing put him in touch with a regional manager in the U.S. once he got his green card. He’s thrilled to be working after the forced time off. He’s starting at a lower level than where he was working in China, but is confident he’ll work his way up again.
Growing up in an open-minded family and in a relatively liberal state, “Being gay in day-to-day life was quite easy,” Hill says. “So I never felt like I wouldn’t get a job or would get kicked out of [an] apartment. It wasn’t until this issue that I felt like a second-class citizen, like I didn’t have the right to be in the U.S. with my partner.
“It was the first time I thought about what activism really is and what inequality is,” he continued. “In California or on the East Coast we think gay people are totally equal, but there are still things that are horrendous and unequal, and I hadn’t realized it until this happened to me.”
Despite the tremendous hurdles, Hill and Hai ultimately fared relatively well, thanks to their uncanny timing. While they underwent three years of dramatic uncertainty, thousands of international LGBT couples have spent years, even decades, wondering how to be together. Many moved to other countries. Many separated.
“Ours is a happy ending,” Hill admits. “One sentence in this law changed, and that changed my whole life for the better.” Now Hill participates in online activist groups that work to alter the remaining state laws that prohibit same-sex couples from living with the same rights he and Hai fought for. After they took the cross-country road trip together they realized that if they’d gotten in a car accident in Tennessee, they may not have been able to visit one another in the hospital.
Word by word, it’s getting easier for couples to stay together. You hear a foreign accent. You fall in love. You get married. You stay.
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Rey Lopez is a Washington, D.C.-based photographer with a passion for capturing food, places and stories.
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