I can’t quite believe it, but November marks my third year living in America with my heartmate. In some ways it feels like just yesterday we sold most of our belongings in our London apartment, packed up what was left, and boarded a plane from London’s Heathrow Airport with a one-way ticket to New York’s JFK airport. And at other times it feels like a lifetime ago. So much has happened since then: we were granted our green cards, my husband joined the business, I published my second book, we bought a house, moved apartments twice and so much more. Yikes, I feel equal parts exhilarated and exhausted just writing that. Ha-ha! Still, it’s been the most incredible ride and we both feel incredibly fortunate to be living in a city we adore. However, the journey of getting here was far from smooth. After the jump, I’m sharing the story of how I moved from England to America. I was inspired to share this story after hearing about P&G’s Love Over Bias campaign. It addresses the biases that athletes face and highlights our mothers’ roles in supporting us in overcoming these hurdles. Obstacles stemming from what they look like, who they love or where they come from on their journey to the Olympic stage are highlighted.
Back in 2008 I bought my heartmate, Toby, a return ticket to NYC for his 21st birthday. The moment we stepped out of Grand Central Station and looked up to see the soaring skyscrapers for the first time, I knew that one day I wanted to live and work here. It may sound cliché but in that moment I knew that I would eventually call the city home. And I ended up being able to call New York City just that – home – but not for seven years after I first stepped foot in the city.
Later in 2008 I was back in the U.K., had graduated with my degree in Journalism and decided to start this very blog you are reading now. I remember being embarrassed about it at first: blogs were very new in the U.K. back then. Scrap that, on the whole they were virtually unheard of amongst most people. Plus, I was writing about interior design and my own internalized (and completely irrational) bias made me feel that I should be embarrassed about focusing my blog on a traditionally female and gay male dominated industry.You see, I was still fighting against years of being told that vocational and creative endeavors weren’t worth pursuing: they weren’t secure enough, I didn’t have the talent for them and so on. While I was grateful to have the opportunity to study at a well-respected grammar school, the institution’s highly academic nature meant none of my creative leanings were encouraged or nurtured. I still remember the headmaster of the school sneering disapprovingly when I told him that I was going to study Journalism at university. There I was, after two years of really hard work and a great A-Level exam results, heading off to study at a well-respected redbrick university. Yet, my interaction with him left feeling a sense of emptiness, lack of self-confidence and self-worth. I was still young and impressionable and thanks to years of similar encounters with other teachers, I was questioning all the choices I had made. I was worrying about whether I was foolish not to listen to my elders and their disparaging actions towards the choices I was making for my future. I hope that despite his disapproval of my choices that he would now reconsider given that my “useless” degree led to a job at the BBC; to start my own blog which now has over 2.5 million followers on social media; to write and style two interior design books that have been published in eleven different languages around the world; and to have the opportunity to move my life to work in a new country and city that I adore.But it was more than just the academic bias of my teachers that presented mental roadblocks to the path I wished to walk. This was also when I realized that the hurdles that came with being gay were greater than I had first thought. At school there was the name calling by my peers, the rumors that were spread, the taunts that would be shouted from the other end of the corridor as I walked between classes. I was ridiculed for my interest in drama and design, it was linked to my sexuality, and it was made clear that I should be embarrassed of both.
Here’s the thing: it worked. Even years later when I had come out and was growing into a young adult who felt more confident in himself, I still felt like I should be doing something more ‘manly’ than interior design. I’d worked in visual merchandising a design store to help pay my way through university. I’d started writing articles for newspapers and magazines about design. My fledgling design blog was slowly starting to grow and gain traction. Yet, still, I hadn’t overcome my internalized bias and embarrassment that I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing. Despite a wonderful group of friends and a supportive family, the taunts and disapproving words towards my sexuality and interests in my early and impressionable years had led me to think that I should be ashamed of what I loved, and who I loved.As the years passed the blog continued to go from strength-to-strength and I thought to myself: I can do this. I signed my first book deal and went on an American book tour – what a dream! My audience grew in America (the majority of my following has always been based in the US) and so did the business, which was great because I felt this could be my opportunity to get a visa to live and work in America. I was right: I spoke with an immigration attorney in 2012 and they said I had a strong case to present for an O-1 Visa, which would grant me the right to live and work in America for up to three years. For this visa you have to prove you have an exceptional and outstanding talent in your field of work.
However, I soon discovered that simply because I was gay I wouldn’t be able to get a partner visa for my soon-to-be husband. This stemmed from the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denied federal benefits to married same-sex couples. If I’d been married to a woman then there would have been no issue. Isn’t that crazy, that simply because of who I loved I wasn’t able to take the opportunity to move to the country I’d always dreamed of living and working in? Not only that, but a country that I loved, wanted to pay my taxes to and become a part of. Both my heartmate and I were crushed with disappointment.Then, in 2013, DOMA was ruled by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. By 2014, Bright.Bazaar had grown even more and so after my husband and I married, I got back in touch with our immigration attorney. After 18 months of compiling evidence of my work and having meetings and screenings at the US embassy, I was granted an O-1 Visa. I was euphoric and so was my husband because now that DOMA was unconstitutional, it meant he was able to come and study and live in the US with me. I always remember being so nervous at our final embassy meeting before they granted us the visa. We lucked out with a super friendly immigration agent who after hearing our story, had tears in her eyes. She told us that we were one of many couples who’d faced such a roadblock because of who they loved, and how she was finding so much joy in finally being able to grant same-sex couples the visas she had spent years only giving to straight couples.
We spent another year evidence gathering, which included countless letters from companies attesting to the value of my involvement and work on their on projects, all of my press coverage, more embassy meetings and interviews and so much more. Our lawyer said the pile of paperwork they submitted for the green card application was the record for the highest pile in their long career as an immigration attorney! We eventually received our green cards in the fall of 2016, and it was a relief and happiness like no other. We finally had security and didn’t feel like we were in limbo. Knowing we both had the right to live and work in the city and country we’d fallen in love with was an indescribable joy. We could put roots down and build a life and home without a ticking clock on when we’d need to leave.The reason I wanted to share these experiences, from what happened at school and after university, through to the more recent visa process is because I hope it will inspire you to persevere in the face of adversity. Whether someone tells you that you can’t or shouldn’t do something, or you aren’t valuable or ‘valid’ because of the color of your skin, what you look like, who you love or anything else – you are valuable, you are important and you can do it. If I hadn’t persisted with following my dream of working in interior design, or hadn’t fought back against the internalized bias in my head about my own sexuality thanks to the bullying that happened at school, I would have never started and continued to grow Bright.Bazaar. And if I hadn’t started Bright.Bazaar all those years ago from my bedroom, I wouldn’t be sitting here in the NYC apartment I share with my heartmate, with a green card and a path to American citizenship. Take the jump. Push back on people who tell you can’t. Lean into those that say you can. It’s not always easy – far from it – but embracing love over bias has carried me far. And it can for you, too.
You can watch the moving Love Over Bias film right here:
For more inspiration, check out my Instagram Story today where I’m sharing my one-on-one interviews with Michelle Kwan and Gus Kenworthy. In the interviews, both Olympians share advice on how they’ve overcome obstacles and biases, and there’s some fun games I played with them, too. Do check it out if you have time – they are super fun and insightful.