On Sept. 30, Elizabeth Gilbert -- author of the monster bestseller "Eat, Pray, Love" and the heroine of the gorpy new Julia Roberts-Javier Bardem flick of the same name -- will follow the path trod by countless other celebs seeking civic enlightenment: She'll lobby House and Senate members on Capitol Hill.
Gilbert hopes to persuade lawmakers to pass the Uniting American Families Act, giving foreign-born, same-sex spouses of gay and lesbian U.S. citizens the residency rights enjoyed by straight, bi-national married couples such as Gilbert and "Felipe," the alias she gave her paramour in the book. She calls that provision "the hetero card," and she finds its exclusions "unconscionable."
Her cause is timely; same-sex couples in Mexico City gained the right to marry this year, and in California on Thursday, Judge Vaughn Walker ruled gays could resume marrying by midweek next week if Proposition 8 supporters fail to win an appeal. In the past decade, 10 nations, including Canada, South Africa, Iceland and Argentina, have legalized same-sex unions.
As much of the world surely knows by now, Gilbert is living happily and profitably ever after in Frenchtown, N.J., with husband Jose Nunes, the Brazilan-born, Australian citizen she met in Bali, the third leg of her post-divorce search for spirituality and happiness that took her to Italy, India and Indonesia.
Neither marriage-scarred lover wanted to wed again, but they relented after a Homeland Security officer told them matrimony was the only way to end Jose's chronic visa woes. (He had to keep reapplying for a 90-day tourist visa, until one day, arriving with her at a Texas airport, he was denied entry on the grounds he'd been coming here too often. Their residency struggle and subsequent union spawned Gilbert's next book, "Committed," an examination of the institution of marriage over the ages.)
Tying the knot was an option for this couple only because they are straight. The "loophole" suggested by the kindly "Officer Tom" at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport does not allow law gay and lesbian bi-national couples to sponsor their foreign partners for U.S. residency, no matter how long they've been together.
Gilbert went public on the subject in June at an Immigration Equality Action Fund benefit in New York.
In addition to being "unjust and cruel and unconscionable," Gilbert said, "these laws are stupid because they are taking away some of the best and brightest minds and prospects out of the country." While her husband's Asian-import business employs Americans and generates taxes, she said same-sex couples "are forced to do nothing but fight for their lives. And they are in a fight for their lives. And I am proud to be part of that fight."
The high-profile Gilbert, who is currently hyping the movie, is a natural lobbyist, said Rachel B. Tiven, the group's executive director. "She totally, totally gets the issue. You don't have to explain it to her." More than 36,000 LGBT bi-national couples are affected by current law, with nearly 17,000 of those families raising young children, according to the group. The legislation has 125 co-sponsors in the House and 24 in the Senate.
Despite some harsh election-year rhetoric about limiting, not expanding the residency rights of immigrants, Tiven told me she is optimistic about the stand-alone bill's ultimate passage. The Senate has already included language recognizing gays, lesbians, bi-sexual and transgender immigrants in its pending comprehensive immigration bill, Tiven told me by phone. And in 2008, President George W. Bush signed the repeal of a ban on immigrants with HIV-AIDS entering the country, which took effect last January.
While Gilbert and others will fan out across Capitol Hill to lobby for the measure, don't look for "Felipe" to do his own version of the legislative two-step. Her intensely private husband has already turned down offers to appear on "Oprah." Think of his position as "Eat, Pray, Love, Avoid the Limelight."
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