April 21st, 2012
05:00 PM ET

Andrew Sullivan on his struggle to become an American

On my show tomorrow at 10a.m. and 1p.m. EST, I speak to a man who lives a life of contradictions. He is British but he writes about American politics. He's a political conservative (self-identified) but he was named one of the 25 most influential liberals in America by Forbes magazine.

Andrew Sullivan is a blogger for The Daily Beast. He's the former editor of The New Republic. In the follow excerpt from our interview, we discussed his struggles to get a Green Card as a gay and HIV-positive man.

Fareed Zakaria: Andrew, I've known you for almost 30 years now. And you were always passionately interested in America - in American politics.  Like me, you're an immigrant. But you have only very recently been able to get a Green Card - be a permanent resident of this country that you love, that you've identified with. Why?

Andrew Sullivan:  There are two reasons.  One, because I'm HIV positive and have been since 1993.  And, secondly, because I'm gay.  And my marriage, which is legal in both my resident states - Massachusetts and Washington, DC - is not recognized by the federal government. So I am not granted an automatic Green Card by virtue of marriage, along with everybody who happens to be in a same-sex marriage.

Fareed Zakaria:  And, of course, if you were straight and you were married, you would automatically...

Andrew Sullivan:  It would be automatically granted, because people understand that if you fall in love with someone, you want to build your life with them.  And if you've been married, as we have now, for four years, together for eight, that's something to tear people apart like that, is an injustice to the American involved.

You know, American citizens, I don't think, ever thought that the right to the pursuit of happiness did not include the right to marry the person you love. But for a whole number of Americans, gay Americans, that happens to be true.

And you see it most explicitly with immigration, because it's a federal issue.

The marriages in the states that are legal are not recognized by the federal government because of the Defense of Marriage Act.  And, therefore, immigration law does not apply to them, as it would to heterosexual married couples.

The other reason is that - and this is how I found out - just before my medical, they take blood from you.  In 1993, I did my own private medical - I had no idea.  I really didn't expect it - and found out I had HIV.  And back in '93, that was a death sentence.

But I will tell you, in all candor, the thing that I grieved most about that day was the fact that I had to withdraw my Green Card application, which had been approved in every other respect.  I was about to become an American, as I had long dreamed of.  And it was dashed because of this.

I was more crushed by being excluded from America than I was fearful of dying.

Fareed Zakaria:  But when you would talk to politicians - because you're so well connected in Washington - and, as you say, this is the only disease which seems so obviously just discriminatory and cruel toward one set of people, what was the defense that people would give you?

Andrew Sullivan:  There was no defense.  They just weren't interested in it.  Foreigners don't have a constituency in America.  And gays have even less of one. And so I was amazed.  I actually had one of these dinners with Bill Gates, who runs the AIDS Foundation. He was not even aware that this ban was in place.  And naturally - I mean he is now - and helped to actually get the law changed.

People didn't know.  Gay people didn't know, because the people affected couldn't come out and say, "I have HIV and I've been affected by this" without automatically rendering them liable to deportation or not being able to get in.

So there was also this enormous stigma that the federal government was attaching to HIV, which is, of course, the opposite of what you're trying to do in getting treatment and prevention.

I mean we are in a much better place now.  It's all resolved.  There was a point at which it was just the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia....

China lifted this thing before the United States did.  Yet the United States, as a funder of AIDS research, as a philanthropist around the world, is, by far, the biggest actor.

We couldn't have an AIDS conference in America for 18 years because of this, because none of the people coming - none of the people who were activists, who were HIV positive, from Africa or elsewhere - were able to come into the country.

Other people, I think of the blogger, Glenn Greenwald, who's an American and  a very influential American blogger, he has to live in Rio de Janeiro because his spouse can't get a visa to live in the United States.

Fareed Zakaria:  Because?

Andrew Sullivan:  Because not recognized as a spouse.  If the Defense of Marriage Act were to end, then this would end, too.

But this is the first time in history, including interracial marriage, that the federal government, in terms of immigration, has tried to split couples up.  It didn't do it even with interracial.  It recognized those states where interracial marriage was legal and didn't recognize them in those states where it was illegal.  It deferred to the states.

This is the first time in American history that the federal government decided, 'We will split couples up.'

Fareed Zakaria:  You have the Green Card, which means you automatically, at what point, can apply for citizenship?

Andrew Sullivan:  I think it's five years.  And I will do so as soon as I can. I've always felt to be a participant in this country's amazing debate.  I'll have to say this, though, no actual American ever treated me any differently for being HIV positive, gay or British.

Fareed Zakaria:  Well, maybe the third, huh?

Andrew Sullivan:  Well, no, but it is.  But whereas the third, it actually kind of gave you this ridiculous affirmation for being British, so I think it's one reason, unconsciously, I lost my accent. I couldn't stand that.

But to be an active participant in this debate, as an American, it makes a difference.  It allows you to say, "We."  And as a daily writer, that's a breakthrough.  I can't tell you, I mean, it was the happiest day of my life when that came through.

And I just want very much to end the Defense of Marriage Act or to pass the American Families Act, which will allow the spouses of gay couples, who are legally married in the United States, not to be forced, if they're bi-national, to have to live elsewhere.

No American should be forced to choose between their spouse and their country.  And yet increasing numbers of Americans are facing that.

Fareed Zakaria:  When you become a citizen, as one naturalized American to another, I will send you a bottle of champagne.

Andrew Sullivan:  Thank you very much. Maybe we'll drink it together.

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Topics: Politics • Sex

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