Fil-Am gay couple visits homeland after decades of legal struggle

Fil-Am gay couple visits homeland after decades of legal struggle

The legal hurdles faced by Shirl Tan and Jay Mercado drew the intercession of US legislators, making headlines around the country

Shirl Tan and Jay Mercado

Jay Mercado (left) and Shirl Tan enjoy a belated honeymoon in Laguna, their home province. CONTRIBUTED

SAN FRANCISCO – For the first time since she left the Philippines in the 1980s, Shirl Tan returned to her birth country for a visit last week from San Francisco.  She had departed as a single tourist and returned as wife, mother to twin adult sons and a bona fide permanent resident of the United States.

Her journey sounds typical of countless accidental and planned immigration stories, which is farthest from her experience.

The three decades Tan spent away from her original homeland were fraught as these played out in the public eye long before the advent of social media.

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Very married

Tan is half of a couple who became the face of marriage equality when she wed Jay Mercado – twice in fact – in 2004 and then in 2009, on top of having registered in 1991 as domestic partners.

Both are female, nothing novel about their relationship in the first decade of the 21st century, especially in their adopted home of San Francisco Bay Area. Jay is a US citizen. Shirley did not know her asylum appeal had been denied. And true to terror stories of authorities untimely showing up to whisk away the undocumented, Shirl and Jay’s fight to stay together began.


That’s history, they’re elated to say now.

Shirl Tan and Jay Mercado with twins

The Mercados were blessed with twin sons in 1996. CONTRIBUTED

Because of their tight schedule, the couple did not inform their friends of their visit and will likely surprise them instead.  They will have time to relax, no more PTSD from that morning incident that threatened to tear them apart.

Days before their departure, Shirl could already taste buko pie baked with the velvety flesh of fresh young coconut, a specialty of their province, Laguna.  They will jaunt over to Quezon, next province to the south, expressly for a noodle dish in banana leaf spiked with vinegar familiarly called pancit habhab.


Both hail from San Pablo City.  Jay had been back there on business minus her wife.  Once she took their twin sons to introduce them to their grandparents.  This time she is attending to family business again, the actual reason for this trip now that her immigration card is in her hands, Shirl said.

shirl tan and jay mercado with family

With their growing family at the San Diego wedding of Joriene and Ryan, from left: daughter-in-law Abby, Shirl, the newlyweds, Jay and Jashley Mercado. CONTRIBUTED

“We’re both excited ‘cause this is our first flight together to the Philippines,” Jay said, but Shirl knows better.

“She’s the more excited one because she’s been to places she liked that she wants to share with me,” Shirl added.  The trip brings them back to the beginning of their romance.

Coming out

Theirs is a love story spanning two countries and involving two sets of family friends.

They first met in the mid-1980s, when Shirl, then 20, and her father visited California and stayed at the home of Jay’s aunt.  Upon seeing Shirl arrive from the airport, Jay, then 26, immediately felt a crush on their houseguest.

Back then Mercado had not come out, and Tan had never dated.  But they hit it off and enjoyed each other’s company, with Jay taking Shirl on long drives to her favorite California landmarks.

When the time came for Shirl to fly home, they knew they had fallen in love. They remained close through every means of communication available pre-internet era.

Shirl and Jay with Pride topped tree

Even the Tan-Mercado Christmas tree proclaims their identity, with Pride flag as topper. CONTRIBUTED

Jay soon followed her to the Philippines, and they came out to their families, who were not thrilled by the revelation.  Eventually Shirl decided to listen to her heart and flew back to California to spend her life with Jay, who works in commercial insurance.

Shirl tried working as a substitute pre-school teacher but had difficulty with the last-minute scheduling. She enjoys her role as a homemaker in their picturesque Pacifica residence.

In 1996, the couple became parents to twin boys, both through IVF.  They have been forthcoming about their life and so have their sons Joriene and Jashley, now 28, about theirs.

As babies, the boys referred to both parents as “mom,” Shirl told USA, but later asked and got approval to call Jay “dad.”

When they first enrolled their sons at their parish school, Jay informed the principal that she and Shirl were a same-sex couple.  Would that be a problem, she was upfront, and relieved to hear the boys were welcome.

“They were happy at Good Shepherd,” Shirl described the early education of Joriene, who earned his human biology degree at Stanford, and Jashley, who studied business management at Chapman University.  Jashley married Abby Leus, a fellow Fil-Am.  Joriene married Ryan, a fellow teacher.

“Seamless” is the adjective Shirl uses to recount how Joriene came out to them.

“He invited us to a play in school where his role was that of someone coming out to his family,” she recalled.  “On our way home afterwards, he told us it was his story.”

Tan and Mercado are a typical long-married couple, except for their different last names, a concession to practicality.  Shirl says she will “definitely take Jay’s last name” when she applies for her US passport in three years.

Biggest test

As they prepared for their first overseas trip together, Shirl disclosed a priority with USA.

“We’ll visit the graves of my family,” Shirl brought up a bittersweet item on their itinerary.  Her last phone call to her father was to say goodbye as he lay in his deathbed, she said.

Shirl had lost her mother and sister much earlier when they were shot and killed by a relative in a family dispute over inheritance, she said, a tragedy that became basis for her 1995 asylum bid.  Shirl herself was shot but was lucky to survive with a scar on her head.

Her asylum appeal was rejected by the US Board of Immigration Appeals due to its personal rather than political nature, but Shirl said she did not receive notification.  That triggered the 6 a.m. surprise visit from two Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and the legal struggle for Tan to stay put with her wife and their family.

Their efforts drew the intercession of then-US Rep. Jackie Speier and the late US Sen. Dianne Feinstein that made headlines around the country.

Last summer a judge gave Tan permanent residence.  Shirl’s “green card” arrived recently.

Tan and Mercado are generous with their time, sharing their story to give hope to couples hiding their love for each other to avoid harassment or deportation.

“It’s a privilege to be able to speak up for the community,” Shirl said of their unexpected emergence as champions of marriage equality.

“What we all need is to be more educated,” Jay explains their openness to speak to the media or attend public events to show they are “the same, human beings who happen to love each other…doing nothing wrong” to others.

“Be truthful to yourselves. And always fight for what is right,” Mercado would say to those together in secret.

While grateful for their newfound freedom, they cannot help but harbor some anxiety these days.

“Currently we feel safe, but with this coming election and if you-know-who wins, our situation will be in jeopardy,” Jay expressed a rare moment of unease amid the rise of political rhetoric scapegoating minorities including the collective Pride community.  “What we have worked for might be in great danger.”

These next two weeks, however, their focus is on their belated honeymoon, cherishing every moment they always believed would come.

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TAGS: Fil-Am, LGBTQ, US-Featured
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