The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Why We Can’t Be Silent

I wrote in the previous post that our families are not served by silence. I know it’s true because stories like this one continue to happen to our families. a commenter at Booman brought this to my attention.

Four months ago, Lacey resident Janice Langbehn, her partner Lisa Pond and their children Katie, David and Danielle, ages 10 to 13, were set for a relaxing cruise from Miami to the Bahamas.

But Pond, Langbehn’s partner for nearly 18 years, was stricken in Miami with a brain aneurysm and died. The family says the way they were treated by hospital staff compounded their shock and grief.

Langbehn, a social worker, said officials at the University of Miami, Jackson Memorial Hospital did not recognize her or their jointly adopted children as part of Pond’s family. They were not allowed to be with her in the emergency room, and Langbehn’s authority to make decisions for Pond was not recognized.

“We never set out to change the world or change how others accept gay families,” Langbehn told the crowd at the Capital City Pride on Sunday. “We just wanted to be allowed to live equally and raise our children by giving them all the same opportunities their peers have.”

While Washington is one of a half-dozen states to recognize same-sex partnerships in some fashion, Florida is not.

Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar story.

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In a previous post, I wrote about what happened to a friend of mine when his husband suffered a brain anyeurism and died.

The surviving partner told me the story above yesterday. In the midst of all that was mentioned before, while his husband lay unconscious in the hospital, he had to leave, go home, retrieve the legal documents proving his medical power of attorney, and return to the hospital to prove that he had a legal right to be by his husband’s side and to know what was going on.

I’ve written before about this reality that same-sex couples face when the unexpected — which can befall any family — happens, and in the middle of a situation in which you don’t want to be anywhere but at your loved one’s side you have to prove your legal relationship before you’re recognized as having any rights. The ring on your finger means nothing to anyone else but you.

My friend went home, retrieved his legal paper and got back in the hospital in time to be with his husband, who never regained consciousness. Luckily for him, those legal documents were recognized.

Michael Tartaglia and John Crisci were not as fortunate.

The day Michael Tartaglia died was a day he had prepared himself and his partner of 33 years for, obtaining every protection available under Colorado law. But at the very moment they most needed to fulfill their responsibilities to each other, Colorado law kept them apart. In November, Colorado voters have the chance to fix the law, by approving Referendum I.

In the mountain home he designed and built with Tartaglia, John Crisci takes a moment to collect himself, his eyes welling up with tears, as he recalls once more the events of Jan. 8, 2004.

“It doesn’t get any easier no matter how many times you say it,” he manages, his voice wavering. This is a story Crisci has told to the Colorado legislature, to newspaper reporters and to various groups throughout the state.

When Tartaglia collapsed at the gym on his 70th birthday, Crisci was with him. But the legal papers documenting the couple’s relationship were at their home, 15 minutes away by car. So while an ambulance rushed Tartaglia to Denver’s St. Anthony Central Hospital, Crisci could not be with him, as any spouse would expect to be. “They just weren’t going to allow it,” Crisci said of the paramedics. Instead, he rushed home to retrieve his documents, then drove 30 minutes to the hospital, only to find his worst fears confirmed. Tartaglia was already dead.

Facing the same situation, married couples are treated very differently. While Colorado law grants a spouse rights to make medical and end-of-life decisions by default, Crisci knew he needed in hand both Tartaglia’s medical power of attorney (a document that expires upon death), and his will for the worst outcome.

John knew he would need to arrive at the hospital carrying both a durable medical power of attorney for the best outcome, and a will for the worst.

Even having those documents does not guarantee they will be recognized, as Bill Flanigan’s story showed.

Told by hospital staff in Baltimore that he could not visit his dying life partner because he was not the partner’s family, Bill Flanigan, a resident of San Francisco, today sued the University of Maryland Medical System in Baltimore City Circuit Court. Flanigan’s partner of five years, Robert Daniel, had been admitted to the medical system’s Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore on October 16, 2000, from complications arising from AIDS. Flanigan and Daniel were on their way to visit Flanigan’s sister in the Washington, D.C. area, where a nearby hospital transferred Daniel to the Shock Trauma Center – part of the University of Maryland Medical System – because of Daniel’s critical condition.

As he was kept in the waiting area of the Shock Trauma Center, Flanigan asked staff members to allow him to see Daniel and to confer with Daniel’s physicians. They told him only “family” members were allowed to do so, and that “partners” did not qualify.

Flanigan explained he had a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care Decisions and that he and Daniel were registered as domestic partners (in California). The Shock Trauma Center also had the records of the first hospital to which Daniel was admitted, where Flanigan was recognized as family, having spent the night in a chair by Daniel’s bed.

The Shock Trauma Center acted quite differently. For four hours, personnel kept Flanigan away from Daniel and his doctors – meanwhile allowing family members of other patients to visit their loved ones and confer with doctors. Flanigan, on the other hand, was not given the opportunity to make surgeons aware of Daniel’s wish not to have life-prolonging measures performed on him, including the insertion of a breathing tube.

After four hours, Daniel’s sister and mother arrived from out of town. Only then did the Shock Trauma Center provide information on Daniel’s status that had been repeatedly denied to Flanigan, and subsequently allow the entire family, including Flanigan, to see Daniel. By that point, Daniel was no longer conscious, his eyes were taped shut, and the two men never had the chance to say goodbye.

The indignities do not stop even after death, even in the midst of grief as Crispin Hollins found out when his partner passed away of a heart attack.

Eric and Crispin were of course at the forefront of the Gay Marriage movement. They had long held Californian domestic partnership, and also married when (briefly) we believed that San Francisco law permitted us to do so. They had made for one another all the necessary legal arrangements: powers of attorney, mutual wills, etc etc. All their bases were covered, so they thought. As soon as he heard the news, Crispin had flown straight out to Provincetown, where Eric died, to make funeral arrangements. A friend who accompanied them said that when Crispin began to detail the requirements for the cremation and commitment at the funeral home in Provincetown, the funeral director drew himself up and demanded to know what the basis of their relationship was. He told Crispin: “I don’t believe you will be making the funeral arrangements”. It required the intervention of NGLTF lawyers and lawyer friends on both coasts to convince the funeral home that he was indeed authorized as a legal partner to make the arrangements. Crispin requested an autopsy, which was contested by the Medical Examiner on the same grounds, and the cremation was subsequently questioned as well (they called during the funeral to argue the case with Crispin).

This stands as a lesson to all of us. We are continually told that as Queers, we do not need to be allowed to marry because all legal avenues of partnership are open to us as domestic partners. For Christ sake- this happened in Massachussetts! They had the gall to question a 16 year old relationship, legally bound as far as two gay men can go. At a time when Crispin was utterly bereft and distraught they had the temerity to impugn his and Eric’s relationship, which was as closely legally covered as they could make it. (Eric’s family, by the way, have too much respect for Crispin to intervene- they would not, I think, dream of subverting his moral authority to decide the arrangements).

Meanwhile conservatives in Minnesota are opposing legislation that would grant same-sex partners the right to hospital visitation.

“When someone takes their partner to the emergency room and they’re asked ‘what’s your relationship to this person?’ and they respond ‘I’m their partner’ and the nurse puts up her hand and says stop, your not family. You can’t go beyond this door,” said Ann DeGroot, who represents the gay rights group Out Front Minnesota.

Conservative groups are fighting the proposal. Their concern is not about visitation, but putting anything into law that acknowledges same sex partnerships.

“What we object to is the creation of these domestic partner statuses, which is really marriage by another name and that’s what we see they are attempting to do”, said Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council.

Do not be fooled. The above stories should make at least a few things clear.

Protecting marriage is not the point. The religious right cannot be believed when they say that “all we want to do is protect marriage,” and their actions in Minnesota prove that because they will oppose any legislation granting same-sex partners the right to hospital visitation, arguing that it confers some form of legal recognition upon our relationships. Legal recognition of our relationships is the very thing required in order to gain such rights as hospital visitation. Without legal recognition hospital visitation and all the rest become privileges that can be granted and revoked depending on the whim of the individuals we deal with as families. Anyone who then wants to discriminate against or act punitively towards our families can do so, and we have no legal rights to claim as violated, and thus no means to seek legal recourse.

Our legal documents are insufficient. Opponents of equality have long tossed out the argument that “you already have the right to draw up legal documents to get the protections you seek. I don’t know if Langbehn and Pond had legal documents to protect their relationship or whether they travelled with them, but Bill Flanigan’s story shows that even having those documents doesn’t guarantee they will be recognized outside of the state in which they were written, notarized, etc. And, if our legal documents are not recognized, there is no legal status for our relationships that cuts across state lines.

Domestic partnerships and civil unions are insufficient. Crispin Hollins ordeal, as well as the situation facing Robert Scanlon and Jay Baker, shows that “marriage-lite” arrangements offer insufficient protections at best, and are likely not to be recognized outside of the state’s where we enter into them. Besides, our opposition has already stated their opposition to any legally recognized status for our relationships. Where civil unions and domestic partnerships have been established, they have fought to strip from them even the few benefits and protections they offer, as they have done with health benefits in Michigan, and as they are trying to do with hospital visitation in Minnesota.

Anything that isn’t marriage is less than marriage, and can potentially be redefined out of existence. On the other hand, our opposition will right marriage equality, but they will not seek to reduce the benefits and protections afforded marital status.

This is discrimination. My family, which is going on the same cruise next month, does no travel without copies of: our advance directives, our medical powers attorney, our wills, and our son’s adoption decree and reissued birth certificate. As I’ve written before, this resonates with me as an African American, because my ancestors lived in a time when they couldn’t travel without “papers” saying they had the right to be where they were, and now my family faces devastating consequences if we are caught away from home without our “papers,” which define our relationship and which we hope will gain us some rights.

I don’t pretend that anti-gay discrimination is the same as racial discrimination. You will probably not see pictures of gay families being attacked with firehoses, bitten by police dogs, or being dragged away from lunch counters. Except for noteworthy incidents of anti-gay violence, you will not see many arresting images of the myriad ways we’re discriminated against. That’s because what happens to us and our families takes place behind the closed doors of hospital wards, boardrooms and court rooms, where nobody takes pictures. But the discrimination and the pain and indignity that results from it are no less real.

Name one instance in which, when facing the situations above, married heterosexuals would have to provide legal documents or say anything more than “I’m his wife” or “I’m her husband” in order to be with their spouses, say good-bye to their spouses, or carry out their spouse’s wishes.

This is what gradualism gets us. Whether it’s “pragmatic” or not, as long as we settle for less than full equality, and as long as we let our leadership and our friends off the hook for doing less than standing for full equality, these stories will continue to happen.

And there will be damn little anyone can or will do about it.

While we wait.

5 Comments

  1. This should be required reading before anyone is allowed to vote on any “defense of marriage” initiative. Thank you.

  2. The important thing to remember is that the opposition will stop short of saying that any of these stories should have happened. In fact, they may agree that these are awful stories.

    But they will oppose legal recognition of our relationships that might prevent these stories from happening by establishing a legal right to hospital visitation. Without a defensible legal right, our families remain vulnerable.

  3. Alternatively, they’ll establish a civil union or domestic partnership status that includes hospital visitation, et al., without realizing that the non-transferability of such status only works if we never travel for work or pleasure outside our home states. For that matter, even a Massachusetts same-sex marriage is pretty useless elsewhere–but at least the state has given us the best fighting chance, as soon as other states (and the federal government) get their acts together.

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