I married my best friend for his green card shortly after September 11, 2001. He’s gay and from a Middle Eastern country I call Emiristan to help protect his identity. His student visa was expiring and he would have had to return to live in the closet in a homeland where he could be killed were it found out that he happened to share a gender with the person he romantically loved. I much preferred for him to stay in West Hollywood and with me. In Emiristan, he would likely have had to enter an arranged marriage with a woman, so he entered one with me, instead. Ours had fewer restrictions and no expectations.
To top things off, my mother worked for the State Department preventing immigration fraud, so we kept the marriage a secret from her—she thought I had “such a nice roommate.” And his father knew we were married, but not that he was gay, so he thought his son had a nice American wife.
When Mom visited, we hid Emir’s I-485 forms, joint banking paperwork, and pictures of us with the Elvis impersonator at our Vegas wedding in a box. When his father visited, we hid photos of us at Pride marches, Barbara Streisand CDs, and a magnet that read Nobody Knows I’m Gay.
It’s a bit of a comedy of errors, but I use comedy to—I hope—highlight the underlying serious themes.
You wrote this book to get attention, right? To make yourself look honorable, “saving” your friend and all?
I wrote The Marriage Act to draw attention, yes, but not to what your question implies. Attention to why gender-neutral marriage was and continues to be so high-stakes as a civil rights issue, yes. Personal attention, not so much, and no, I definitely do not consider myself an honorable hero or something. I was a friend who did, I hope, what any true close friend would do. I hate the interpretation that I’m self-congratulatory, saying I “saved” him. That’s not what I’m trying to say at all. The book’s purpose is to show how much things have changed since the time in which this story took place, but to provoke the realization that until gender-neutral marriage is federally recognized, there is still a ways to go—and that it’s not a “gay” issue. It’s a human rights issue, an “everyone” issue. So that’s what I want to call attention to. It’s not a “look at this crazy Will-and-Grace-on-steroids caper!” story…it’s a love story, a political story, and a story of two young people taking on a lot of responsibility (and not always knowing how to handle that—we were 22 when we got married in Vegas by an Elvis impersonator).
I also never imagined I would write a book that could be shelved in the “memoir” category. I took a stab at an early draft as a novel. But the power of this story was in that it was true. I felt like I had this secret I was carrying around, something I needed to “come out” about, because our story highlighted the absurdity of the debate over marriage rights: Emir and I were one man and one woman, which was how DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, defined marriage at the time. That was the only thing. So our nontraditional union could be made legal for immigration purposes—we lived together, shared everything, met all the qualifications—and yet Emir’s more traditionally romantic relationship would not, at the time, be recognized by law.
Did you feel like you disrespected the shrine of marriage, or that you risked your future in any way by knowingly getting married to the wrong guy?
How dare you call Emir “the wrong guy,” my friend! Marriage with Emir was very fitting and not disrespectful of any institution or person—my mother included—in any way. Besides, when has the institution of marriage ever had a fixed definition? Ours was steeped in authenticity. He was exactly right in that time—he was seeking asylum in the U.S., and I was seeking asylum too: from frustrations, setbacks, and loneliness.
Now that the book is out there, aren’t you worried about either of you getting arrested?
Nope. Because we didn’t do anything illegal. One article called it a “sham marriage” which I felt was more an accusation than an accurate description. Who is to say what relationship is legit other than the two people in it? In my research for The Marriage Act, I found out it’s not illegal to marry because you both have red hair, or for tax benefits, or because you love attending Star Trek conventions in your spare time. You can get married for any reason you please. Actual fraud constitutes a financial transaction between strangers. We were two people who love each other, and through this work I show ways in which that love was legitimate and valid, again coming back to the point of—well who’s to say? If it’s about sex, why isn’t it illegal for infertile couples to marry?
Emir and I experienced the opposite of what Elizabeth Gilbert describes in her marriage memoir, Committed. When her Brazilian love was threatened with deportation, immigration officials asked them if they loved each other enough to get married. It’s the easiest, most failsafe way of keeping someone in the U.S. She was opposed to the institution. Emir and I loved each other enough to get married, but the institution questions us. It’s that old familiar memoir vs. fiction debate: write a memoir and people will try to guess at what you made up. Write fiction and they’ll try to guess what’s true.
Like in your disclaimer, you write about the partnership between imagination and memory.
That makes us uncomfortable, too. We’re married to the idea that our memories are real. But ask two people who were part of the same conversation for a recap, and you’ll get two different stories.
What are some surprising elements in the story?
An extreme shift in my mother’s perspective, and I’d have to say the ending. It was incredibly hard to end this book, because the story just kept going. So I chose to go with a kind of non-ending that I hope surprises the reader as much as it surprised me.
Was it a problem for Emir that you wrote this book?
Emir is also a writer, so he gave me detailed notes and feedback on every draft, both on the craft level and as a complicit participant in the story. He made wonderful suggestions. Even the book is better because of him! Is it any wonder I married this guy?
Why have you been married three times by the age of 33?
Why, for the gift registry, obviously! Just kidding. I don’t have one answer as to why—as with many things, it just turned out this way. Sounds like the makings of a follow-up, doesn’t it?
Three by Thirty-Three: a memoir of three marriages. So what would you discuss in that book?
Maybe there could be some marriages that are right for certain times of your life and not others. My bond with Emir was filial, the marriage more an adoption of sorts. We dated other men and were still looking for soul mates with whom we’d have the “whole package.” I thought I found that with my old high school boyfriend, who I’d been briefly engaged to before Emir. He was one of the reasons it was so easy for me to marry Emir. At 22, I thought, “if I’m not going to marry him, I’m not going to marry anyone, so may as well use my ability to marry toward the good cause of helping my best friend.” My second marriage opens up another thread—that of a “real” marriage that turns fake. Where Emir was supportive and showed unconditional love, Husband 2, who I’d known for 12 years, became controlling and emotionally distant after we married. He’d turned from the sweet person I’d known in school to Wall Street Guy. He wasn’t American either, and begged me to stay married after we separated so his green card could come through via our marriage rather than his bank, because then he’d be married to his bank. While that marriage turned like spoiled milk, Emir has always been reliable and steadfast—my constant.
At 33, I got lucky enough to marry a wonderful, supportive, caring partner who showed me that the third time really is a charm. Thank god for my early marriage experiences. I learned so much that prepared me for this forever.
One thing I took away from my experiences with marriage in my twenties is an understanding of a deep-rooted fear I was holding of divorce, intense as any phobia. I had this warped perception that if I got divorced my life would be ruined, over. By marrying Emir, I was consciously turning the curse on its head: our divorce would be a happy occasion, because it meant one or both of us had found somebody we wanted to live with even more than we did with each other, which would take a lot. When things ended with Wall Street husband, the divorce wasn’t life shattering—it was liberating. I was free from a situation that was no longer working.
Just when I’d come to a place of acceptance that marriage might not be for me after all—that I could be an eccentric old pug lady living alone in a brownstone apartment writing books—I met Jason, and we fell in a content, blissful, friendship-based love. I’m grateful for all I went through because I got over the idea of divorce as this shameful, beastly thing. Divorce as a frightening concept lost its power. Then of course that’s when I met a completely right guy, because that seems to be how it works. Maybe. I don’t claim to be a marriage expert; I’m just a writer who happened to have a certain experience, and I process and learn about my own experiences and larger ideas through the writing process, which I hope results in something interesting, thought-provoking and fun to read.
Is marriage a legal convenience, a romantic notion, or a way to express something intangible?
Any, all, and none. Marriage is a creative process. It’s organic. It’s what you want it to be. In my case, marriage comes down to love and loyalty above all things.
LIZA MONROY is the author of The Marriage Act: The Risk I Took To Keep My Best Friend In America…And What It Taught Us About Love (Counterpoint/Soft Skull), a nonfiction story about friendship, immigration, and marriage rights, and the debut novel Mexican High (Spiegel & Grau/Random House). Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, LA Times, Newsweek, Poets & Writers, Jane, Self, Bust and various anthologies, including The New York Times Best of Modern Love collection, Goodbye To All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, and Wedding Cake For Breakfast. She has taught writing at Columbia University, UCLA Extension, and UC Santa Cruz, and has been awarded residencies by the Kerouac Project of Orlando, Thurber House, and Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Liza lives in Santa Cruz, California with her husband, pug, and a potbellied pig named Señor Bacon. She spends part of the year in Brooklyn and hopes that Señor Bacon can one day also become bicoastal.