Fleeing homophobic legislation

Fagan’s family twice faced international exile when all they wanted was to be together.

“We couldn’t be together as a family in Zambia or the US, as we are here in Canada,” Fagan said.

In 1993 Zambian-born Fagan ended a seven-year marriage and, with two young sons, embraced her sexual orientation in a country where homosexual conduct can result in a 40-year jail sentence.

“I didn’t have any problems personally, but that’s because I didn’t go around being open about my sexuality,” Fagan said. “You just don’t go around holding hands.”

Fagan recounted how just last year one friend had kissed another woman in a Lusaka bar. She was told to leave immediately as the police had been called. Fagan laughed recalling how “the woman then spent the next eight months so scared she got a boyfriend. So yes, it’s not a welcoming place.”

Fagan was introduced to her current partner, American Tamara Fetters, by mutual friends in 1998.

Fetters confirmed that she was also discriminated against by her NGO. Her manager was concerned that the government would blacklist the organization.

Fagan and Fetters travelled to the US with their two boys in 2000, where they had hoped to start a new life together.

Instead, the next eight years were full of legal wrangling for the couple.

Though US immigration policies are allegedly based on the principle of family unification, they do not recognize bi-national same-sex couples as families. That means American citizens who are gay do not have the same rights as other citizens to sponsor their foreign partners or families for immigration.

Fetters did state that there is legislation in the pipeline to redress this balance.

“However, there’s not enough widespread support for bi-national couples for this particular piece of immigration reform,” Fetters said. “Our friends couldn’t believe this was happening to us.”

Fagan had to be declared an “unfit mother” while her student permit was processed, so that Fetters could act as the children’s legal guardian and enroll them for high school.

Fetters also lamented the fact that she “couldn’t adopt them as they already had two parents. They were not biologically my kids so technically the US in their anti-immigration crunch have tried to enact these policies that say if you’re on a certain type of visa you have to pay tuition.” Fetters added, “Except technically they were my kids and I was their guardian.”

“The kids can’t go to universities in the US with resident tuition – so they have to pay international student tuition – that’s $22,000 a year. They can’t even work whilst in school – after a while the situation just became untenable.”

So the family planned their move to Ottawa for four years, but not willingly. Fagan smiled though as she recounted her family’s arrival in Canada in 2008.

The family arrived at Pearson airport in Toronto at midnight and passed through immigration. Fagan recalled how her “youngest son, Sebastian, had suddenly said, ‘That immigration lady called us a family’. I told him, ‘Yes, I know we’re a family.’ Sebastian replied ‘but that’s the first time that we’ve ever been called a family.’”

“These were the words of an 18 year old, which is rather sad,” Fagan said. “The fact that we came in as a family, and all of a sudden we were a unit, I think was quite amazing.”

Fagan and Fetters love the cosmopolitan feel of Ottawa, have made new friends and their boys start university next year.

She laughed adding, “Sebastian, my son, was never open about having lesbian parents until coming to Canada.”

“I feel at home here, I feel at peace here,” Fagan said. “You’d have to drag me back to Zambia. I will only go back there when I have a Canadian passport in my hand so that I know I can get out. I have a paranoid fear of never being able to get out of there.”

However, despite their new life together in Canada, Fagan dreads their future trip to the US. “We know that when we leave Canada we’re going to be a family, but when we cross the border we’re two separate people again.”