I renounced my US citizenship in 1995. After a decade of sustained attacks on myself and my work, particularly my “reports” into female sexuality, I no longer felt free to carry out my research to the best of my ability in the country of my birth. The attacks included death threats delivered in my mail and left on my telephone answering machine. A statement issued by 12 prominent American feminists, including Gloria Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich and Phyllis Chesler, described the media assaults on me as part of a “conservative backlash . . . not so much directed at a single woman . . . as . . . against the rights of women everywhere”.
At that time, I was the most visible feminist in the US, appearing on the cover of Time magazine. I was besieged by members of the paparazzi, who followed me everywhere. Tabloid journalists would pop up from behind bushes, claiming to represent serious news agencies, to challenge me, confront me and cause incidents that would then be recounted in the press in lurid detail.
I began to look into the possibility of leaving my country for one in which I would be able to carry out my research while achieving some sort of normality in my life. I looked into the German side of my family. Would it be possible to apply for a German passport? After a seemingly endless correspondence with the German immigration services, I was finally invited to apply for a passport. The only catch: I would have to give up my US passport.
I went to the US embassy in Germany. Guarded by a US marine armed with a rifle, I was taken into a small, white, windowless room with no decoration whatsoever on the walls and interviewed at length by a male agent of my government.
“Why are you doing this?” he deman-ded. Was someone “pressurising me”? Seemingly unable to comprehend the idea that anyone would willingly hand back an American passport, the greatest gift one could possess, he hinted darkly that outside forces must be responsible for such an unintelligible decision.
Prior to the events that led to my decision, I would not have credited it, either. I was born in the geographical centre of America, in the state of Missouri, where I lived with my family before leaving to study at Columbia University in New York. Although I did not wave the Stars and Stripes in triumph, I did not feel less (or more) American than my contemporaries. Yet here I was, about to give up whatever being an American was, for ever.
After about 30 minutes, my interrogator told me: “The world is a dangerous place. When you are no longer protected by your American passport you will find that out.” I replied that “millions of people throughout Europe and the rest of the world live without a US passport and they are doing all right”. At that, the agent marched me back along the narrow corridor, grabbed my US passport, which I had been holding throughout the interview, and slammed the door in my face after shouting a final, ironic “good luck”. (Had I offended him personally? Was it a “bad date” for him?)
For two days, before I got my new passport, I was stateless. I ate more than 20 McDonald’s cheeseburgers during that time – though I failed then to see the irony.
I have now been European for almost ten years, and have lived in various countries. My research institute, where I continue to look at issues facing women worldwide, is based in Paris. Fortunately, throughout my professional life, I have developed relationships worldwide, not to mention the millions of readers who write to me from around the world. Because I speak several European languages – thanks to my grandfather, who paid for my schooling – I can feel at home in different places.
On a recent visit to London, I was asked by an old friend: “Do you feel gratified or vindicated in any way to have left the US and given your passport back in protest, now that so many people notice how strong the radical right-wing fringe has become in America?” I had not considered my decision in those terms, but the answer must be a qualified yes.
I love the atmosphere in Europe, and the flourishing debate over ideas. In Europe, I have not received death threats, and my books reach an ever wider public. They have even recently been published in Arabic. French Elle refers to me as an “icone internationale du feminisme“.
The tragedy for the US is that it has lost its leadership as a beacon of idealistic democracy. It is not only the west that has functioning democratic government. But the idea of full, participatory democracy for all – even though there has never been a black or a female US president, and even though women constitute less than 50 per cent of the governing body installed in Afghanistan – is what the west, and in particular the US, should strive to represent, not only in words but also in deeds. No, I do not regret my decision.
Shere Hite is author of the Hite reports on human sexuality. Her autobiography, The Hite Report on Shere Hite, is published by Arcadia