James Penha

Why I Won’t Be Taking My Muslim Husband Home to America

by James Penha

Although a passionate native New Yorker, I have lived in Indonesia for a quarter-century in order to be with my same-sex partner, a Muslim born in Sumatra.

For most of these years, it seemed ridiculous for us to consider living in New York.

After all, it took years to demonstrate well enough to the State Department that Ahmad was not a risk to remain illegally in America and so could be trusted with a tourist visa. Only after George H.W. Bush signed legislation introduced by Barney Frank to rescind the decades-old regulation prohibiting homosexuals from entering the United States could I write a supporting letter discretely describing our relationship and explaining that since I was contracted to return to my employment in Jakarta, Ahmad would certainly be returning with me, to be with me, after a holiday visit to my family in New York.

After 9-11, Ahmad was able to renew his tourist visa, but, on our 2002 visit to New York, as we were waiting for our bags after passing through immigration, the officer who had processed our entry suddenly appeared and demanded that Ahmad follow him for additional − “secondary” was the officer’s word − questioning. The officer refused to explain further, and I was left terrified, given the news of renditions and Guantanamo, that Ahmad would simply disappear. After an hour or so, Ahmad found me with our bags. He was shaking, but unharmed. Mostly, he had waited for an officer who eventually asked some rather harmless questions and moved him on to me.

Although Homeland Security never explained to Ahmad why he was chosen for “secondary” inspection, we came to understand over our next decade of annual visits, that just about all Indonesians and Muslims passing through Immigration at JFK were treated, as was Ahmad every year, to “secondary” inspection. Ahmad’s being taken off the immigration queue to head for “secondary” became rote for us and yet never lost its sickening level of anxiety — for Ahmad and for me.

But we both loved New York so much, we did not miss a year.

In June 2013, we drove from New York to visit Washington D.C. and, as it happened, were on a tour of the Capitol when it was announced across the street that the Supreme Court had overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. This meant, of course, that the federal government would have to recognize Ahmad as my spouse if we ever married. Perhaps, then, we could live — permanently — in New York.

The following year, with more hopes than plans, we brought with us on our trip to the U.S. all the documents required for a New York marriage license. We thought it a good omen that, for the first time in a dozen years, Ahmad was whisked through immigration without a trip to “secondary”. On July 4th weekend, we boarded an Amtrak train to the wedding-friendly City of Niagara Falls where we were licensed and married by the court clerks in the City Council chamber. It was lovely.

Immediately, we applied for the first steps to obtain Ahmad’s green card, but back in Jakarta, we wondered if it made sense, as much as we loved New York, to uproot ourselves and live in a land which, after all, had never before been particularly welcoming to us — to Ahmad especially.

Today, of course, thanks to the incendiary rhetoric of the new President and his cronies in the alt-right media, Islamaphobia in America is worse than ever, worse even than after 9-11.

I remain the Catholic I was baptized, but neither Ahmad and I are very orthodox. We pray to the same God, but we give him different names. We obey some different rules, but we have never had an argument over our religious rites and beliefs. We have never tried to convert each other; we believe we shall anyway find each other in one afterlife.

And so, especially living in Indonesia where Muslims are, in general, far more moderate and ecumenical than the fundamentalist Christians who try to evangelize them here, I am angered when American politicians speak of Christianity and Islam as warring civilizations. Ahmad and I live in one home in one society in one civilization.

I am afraid of the terror fomented in the United States against and among Muslims. I fear the policies and laws that will be enacted.

I cannot trust our future in the United States.

And I am not even the Muslim half of our family! But the fear and the anger and the mistrust lead me to suggest to my husband that we stay where we are for now.

A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and in poetry. His essay “It’s Been a Long Time Coming” was featured in The New York Times “Modern Love” column in April 2016. Penha edits TheNewVerse.News, an online journal of current-events poetry. @JamesPenha