The Republic of T.

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

What A President Can Do

I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.

Barack Obama, August 8, 2008 – Denver, Colorado

There are, I have been reminded throughout the marriage equality debate, limits to what what president can do. A president can’t simply make marriage equality a reality by edict. Nor can a president ban or prohibit marriage equality by declaration. Of course, I’ve never argued that a president could or should be able to do either.

But, there are and have always been things that a president could do, if so inclined, that would move the issue forward in a way that could make a real difference in the lives of many Americans, and open the minds of many more — by stroke of the pen or use of the “bully pulpit” that comes with the office. I have just been waiting for a president who could.

And finally, one did. That’s the only way I can think of to describe Obama’s move to stop hospitals from denying visitation to same-sex partners.


President Obama has asked the Department of Health and Human Services to establish a rule that would prevent hospitals from denying visitation privileges to gay and lesbian partners.

The president’s Thursday memo said, "There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital. … Yet every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides."

Gay and lesbian Americans are "uniquely affected" by relatives-only policies at hospitals, Obama said, adding that they "are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives — unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated."

… Obama requested that the regulation make clear that any hospital receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding, which includes the vast majority of U.S. hospitals, must allow patients to decide who can visit them and prohibit discrimination based on a variety of characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

The president listed widows and widowers without children and members of certain religious orders among those who suffer under the policy.

The memo was welcomed by gays and lesbians, who have used the restrictions on hospital visitation as an argument in favor of same-sex marriage.

This is one of those things that a president has always been able to do, but none has until now.

This is something that will make a real difference, because it means that stories like what happened to Lisa Pond and Janice Langbehn won’t happen now. And if they do, the family will have some means of seeking justice.


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.

It means that stories like what happened to a friend of ours may not happen anymore.

Imagine for a moment that you’re at work, sitting at your desk as usual or going about your daily tasks when you get a phone call. It’s the call that just about everyone dreads. On the other end is a frantic voice telling you that something awful has happened. Your spouse, husband or wife, suddenly collapsed on the job and is being rushed to the hospital, unconscious.

Naturally, you drop everything and race out of the office to get to your love one’s side. Maybe you make it in time to accompany him or her in the ambulance. Finally, you get to the hospital and follow the EMTs in to the ER as they push the gurney down the hall. Your spouse is rushed into an examination room and while you wait outside you try get some information about what’s happening.

Then it happens. A member of hospital staff tells you that because you’re not next of kin they can’t give you any information. Why? Because you’re not married.

Well, it happened to friends of ours.

It was the morning of our move, and I was checking email while I waited for the movers and various other technical people (phone, cable, etc.) to arrive when I got an email from a friend of ours letting me know about his partner’s funeral. They were a couple of gay dads we met through friends, and followed through their adoption process. We celebrated their son’s adoption with them, attended their wedding, and have kept in contact with them. And now one of them had suddenly 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.

…My friend was at least able to go home and get the legal documents he needed, but I can only imagine what it must be like to have to do that, to be kept from my husband and then to have to leave the hospital in order to get legal documents, all the while not knowing what’s wrong, what’s happening to him, or if he’ll be alive when I get back. Even if we’re able to be together in the end, it’s because we’re allowed to be together.

It’s a chilling reminder of who we are and are not. We are legal strangers to each other. And we are not next of kin.

It means that what happened to Michael Tartaglia and John Crisci won’t have to happen again.

John Crisci and Michael Tartaglia, his partner of 33 years, thought they had done everything right. They had wills and other paperwork drawn up giving each other the right to make medical and financial decisions for each other, and specifying which relatives should inherit their assets when they die.

They packed the papers for long trips Crisci didn’t have the documents with him when Tartaglia collapsed at a gym on the morning on his 70th birthday nearly two years ago. An EMT suggested he run home to get the paperwork rather than risk getting into a dispute with hospital officials over medical decisions.

Crisci knew he was too late when a doctor and chaplain were waiting to talk to him at the hospital. To him, the story shows why same-sex couples should be able to register as domestic partners and get many of the same rights as married couples under Colorado law.

"You don’t lose that extra 30 or 40 minutes which may be the last time you can hold on to each other," Crisci said.

People have and will say, “If you want to protect yourself against that, all you have to do is have the legal documents drawn up.” Like all three of the couples above, we have those documents, and acquired them at far greater expense than the $45 cost of our marriage license. And, after hearing my friend tell his story, I decided we needed to have copies of those documents in our car and in our desks at work, so that we can grab them if needed. I never want to be told or have my husband told that one of us can’t see the other, or to lose time having to retrieve those documents.

But the truth is that those documents may not be recognized.

See, when you’re gay, you can be fooled into thinking you’re a citizen until a crisis happens. Then you find out that where a heterosexual spouse would get waved into the hospital room without question, you have to have an arsenal of documents.

Once gay couples complete advance directives, it’s critical that they file the forms with their primary doctors and nearby hospitals, as well as keep copies with them when they travel so that the information is available when necessary, said Jack Senterfitt, an attorney in the Atlanta office of Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund.

“A lot times when problems come up it is during an emergency where someone rushes to the hospital and may not have copies of the documents with them,” Senterfitt said. “It’s not only important to have them enacted, it’s important to have them with you when you need them.”

But even when you have the documents, there is no guarantee a hospital will follow your directives.

There is no guarantee for gay couples that a hospital will follow their directives, even if they have signed, notarized copies with them. Again, just check out the case of Bill Flanigan and Robert Daniel.

If a bible-thumper happens to be in charge of the nurses’ desk that day, you might be S.O.L. Whether you get to be by your partner’s side may hinge on who controls your access, and just what mood they’re in that day.

So, have your papers with you, for all the good they’ll do, because you’re not really a citizen. At least not comparable to your heterosexual counterparts.

But no heterosexual couple I know of has to have “an arsenal of documents” with them at all times, just to see one another in the hospital, as was brought home to me when I told our neighbors about what happened to our friend.

This weekend, while we were downtown, we ran into a friend of ours and his son. While the two boys played together, we chatted about the election, and he told us that he had spent election day volunteering, doing voter defense in Virginia.

We’ve known him for almost six years. We celebrated with him and his partner — a Black gay couple — when they adopted their son after several disappointments, and again when they married. Two years ago his husband — a healthy man by all appearances — collapsed at work, and was rushed to the hospital. Our friend arrived at the hospital only to be told that without proof of their relationship he could not see his husband or receive any information about his husband’s condition.

Without knowing what was wrong, or whether his husband would survive until he got back, he drove home, retrieved their legal documents, returned to the hospital and was allowed to see his husband, and had time to say goodbye. His husband died a few days later, of a brain aneurysm, without regaining consciousness.

I told that story to our white, heterosexual neighbor. She told me what happened when her husband was rushed to the hospital. She arrived at the hospital and only needed to say three words: “I’m his wife.” She got three words in response: “Right this way.”

Will President Obama’s action change peoples’ minds? I don’t know, but I believe that it will do some degree, if only because it will make may people aware of a reality they might not have known of before, because it was never something they had to think about because it’s not something they’ve experienced or that they’ve watched people they know and love deal with.

And whatever most people think about gay people or marriage, almost everyone has had the experience of someone they love dying. Almost everyone knows what that kind of loss feels like, or can at least imagine it because they have a frame of reference. So, I believe that most people will ultimately feel it’s not right — no matter what you believe about gays and gay rights in general — to keep people from their loved ones at such an important time, just because you can.

And those people who didn’t know that same-sex partners could be and have been denied visitation, and that it’s perfectly legal to deny them, will have a few more things to think about.

  1. That is can happen.
  2. That is has happened, and does happen.
  3. That there wasn’t anything same-sex couples could to about it.

And now they know that not only are their people who will deny same-sex couples visitation, but that there are people who think no one should prohibit prohibited from denying visitation to same-sex couples.

I’d go one step further and say that punishing gays & lesbians for loving. Is based on nothing more than hatred. For an example, and a fresh one at that, I don’t have to look much further than Minnesota, where the Minnesota Family Council is opposing hospital visitation rights for gay couples. [Via Box Turtle Bulletin.]

Being able to visit a loved one in a hospital is something many can take for granted. Gay partners say they can be denied access to their partners in critical situations.

A Senate committee will soon consider a new law that would guarantee that access at all hospitals.

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.

Gay rights groups contend it isn’t about gay marriage, but support at a critical time.

“This is just a bill that has to do with something that we know could make people’s lives better”, DeGroot said.

Understand this. Conservatives in Minnesota are arguing that granting hospital visitation to same-sex couples is a threat to marriage. That’s only slightly different than saying that same-sex couples should be barred from visiting one another in the hospital, but saying instead that same-sex couples should not have codified right to hospital visitation.

I’ve no doubt that representatives of the Minnesota Family Council would say, publicly at least, that they don’t think same-sex partners should be prohibited from being with one another, when one is ill or receiving care. However, the reality is that without a legally defined status that includes that, same-sex couples can be denied that right. And if they are denied visitation, they will have no legal recourse because they have no legal status that grants them that right.

That is, until now. Because a president did what was within his power to do in order to prevent it. At least, on his watch. What the next president will do is something we can’t know.

It’s certainly possible that another president will be opposed to any recognition of same-sex relationships, but at least that president will have to undo the current administration’s policy, and thus actively strip people of protections they previously had. But if that happens, there may well be even more people who object, thus making it harder to do.

Because, finally, a president did what any president could do.

Comments are closed.