Kenny Kruse, a teacher in San Francisco, and Yar Zar Min, a nonprofit worker in Myanmar, have weathered more than many couples since meeting in 2016.
They don’t think of themselves as the romantic or married type. They met on gay dating app Grindr in Myanmar, neither looking for a relationship, but soon found each other indispensable despite suddenly being separated and in different countries.
“We had this huge, intense traumatic experience together,” said Kruse, who preferred details remain private. “I just learned so much about him so quickly…seeing how someone responds to terrifying situations and where their ethics and morals are. He’s the best person I know.”
“Every time I’m with him, I feel safe and stronger than I am,” Yar Zar Min said of Kruse. “He always thinks of me and thinks of me being OK.”
Since becoming engaged in 2018, the couple has spent years and significant effort attempting to obtain a visa to bring Yar Zar Min to California. It’s a complicated, expensive process that was made more uncertain by the Trump administration’s immigration policies and extended delays stemming from the pandemic.
After finally obtaining a visa in January — which Kruse estimated cost about $6,100 total — they thought they could truly begin their lives in San Francisco together. But just a few days after obtaining the ticket that would seemingly end their roller coaster, Myanmar’s military on Feb. 1 staged a coup to detain leader Aung San Suu Kyi and take control.
“I can move to the U.S., I can live with Kenny,” Yar Zar Min said he thought after the visa approval. “But then the coup happened. I felt so sad and hopeless. It’s just like hell, the whole country.”
Kruse didn’t hear from his fiance for up to six hours as he desperately tried to reach him, at times informing their friends in Myanmar of the coup as they woke up. The United States embassy held his passport and tons of extensive evidence of their relationship, which put Yar Zar Min at risk of arrest each time he ventured to the building in a country that criminalizes being gay.
Myanmar has laws on the books making same-sex intercourse punishable by up to 10 years in prison. It’s primarily used as an intimidation tactic and the pretense of arrest for other perceived offenses like activism, according to a 2019 report by the Denmark-Myanmar Programme on Rule of Law and Human Rights.
That risk of persecution is what led Yar Zar Min to choose San Francisco, known for being welcoming to LGBTQ folks and culturally diverse, as his new home. Kruse began lobbying for a visa in 2018.
By the time the Utah native Kruse settled in The City in 2019, the visa process was already off track. If Kruse hadn’t hired a lawyer that could advocate for their case, it could have meant months or even years of delays. Yar Zar Min had to overcome other logistical challenges, like obtaining a police report from each place he lived in for more than six months, which meant 18-hour bus rides to up to 10 places.
Myanmar was included in the controversial travel ban under the Trump administration, though the couple later found out a fiance visa was exempt. Still, they didn’t feel safe putting their future in the hands of an administration working to undo LGBTQ rights.
“It was just such a roller coaster,” Kruse said. “I was crying at work and on the phone all the time with the lawyer. I kind of felt like this is never going to happen.”
Then, the pandemic hit. Yar Zar Min became the main provider for his family of street vendors, who were unable to work for extended periods of time. Embassies also closed for an extended period.
Eventually, Yar Zar Min got the necessary interview and approval in late January. The couple finally began to plan his arrival, debating whether to come immediately or allow time to wrap up loose ends and continue to support his family.
The coup, followed by mass protests and arrests in which a 20-year-old died, made it clear he should find a path out as soon as possible. Yar Zar Min grew up in Myanmar — also known as Burma — under military rule, which began in 1962 and ended in 2011. He expressed guilt for leaving, but feels he can do more for his family from the United States than from inside Myanmar.
“I had to live in kind of a dark environment,” Yar Zar Min said. “I don’t want to be back in that kind of situation, I don’t want our children to be back in that situation. At the same time, I feel so bad for my people, my family, my friends. I don’t want to leave my country like that.”
After a frantic search for a flight — while flights are limited to planes that are exiting after delivering relief — the couple found one for Feb. 24. It gives Yar Zar Min enough time to end his non-government organization job and give his severance pay to his family.
But the uncertainty remains.
“Until I get on the flight, it’s not safe,” Yar Zar Min said. “They could cancel the flight, I could also get arrested. Anything can happen tomorrow.”