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Our History

The Struggle for LGBT Immigrant Families

In 1967, The Supreme Court decided the first case related to a binational gay family. They ordered Clive Boutilier separated from his American partner and deported to Canada, citing his homosexuality as evidence of “psychopathic personality disorder.” Over the years, thousands of families were quietly separated or forced into exile simply because the United States would not recognize their families as families for immigration purposes.

Immigration Equality was founded in 1994 as the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force to address the problems LGBT immigrants and their families uniquely face. We became the voice at the national level for LGBT immigrants. In 1999, we worked with Representative Jerrold Nadler to draft the first bill in American history with the goal of LGBT family reunification.

Victoria Neilson joined our staff as Legal Director in 2003, and built a world-class legal team that pioneered the field of LGBT asylum. Our first executive director, Rachel B. Tiven, was hired in 2005, to grow the organization and implement the strategy that would bring success for our families.

The repeal of the HIV Travel and Immigration ban in 2008, implemented in 2010, showed that progress was possible. We opened our Washington D.C. policy office in 2008 to expand our muscle on Capitol Hill.

In 2009, we made Shirley Tan and Jay Mercado, a lesbian couple in northern California, front-page news. The story of Shirley’s fight to stay with her wife and their young sons was covered in Peoplemagazine and newspapers around the country, and brought the struggles of our families to the national stage. Shirley & Jay, along with other couples like Bradford Wells and Anthony Makk, put a human face to the fight countless families were facing.

When the Obama Administration said it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in 2011, we saw our opportunity. We launched a nation-wide search for plaintiffs in the first immigration-related challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, Blesch v. Holder.

Through our sister organization, the Immigration Equality Action Fund, we simultaneously lobbied Congress for immigration reform that included LGBT families. Although the Senate Judiciary Committee ultimately refused to include our families, LGBT immigrants had arrived. We had moved the issue of binational families to the center of the debate just as the Supreme Court was deciding the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. We urged the federal government to recognize LGBT families for immigration benefits as soon as the Court struck down DOMA in the Windsor case, and they did.

Today, our work continues, ensuring that families have access to the green cards that we fought for, advocating for the safety of LGBT immigrants stuck in immigration detention, and winning freedom for LGBT asylum seekers fleeing dangerous conditions around the world.