Every day, same-sex couples must fight for the basic rights that straight married couples take for granted. One of those basic rights is the right to visit your partner in the hospital.
Michael and I are fortunate to live in Broward County, a progressive county in the mostly conservative state of Florida. Broward has a Domestic Partners ordinance which, among other things, guarantees the right of domestic partners to visit their loved ones in the hospital.
During the last year, Michael and I had to be hospitalized in separate occasions: Michael in the Cleveland Clinic in March and I in Broward General in June. (Happily, neither hospital visit lasted for more than a day or so.) In either case, our partner was allowed unlimited access into the hospital's emergency room to be with our loved one.
Unfortunately, other couples were not so fortunate. During the height of the AIDS epidemic, too many gay or bisexual men were forcibly kept away from their dying lovers by hospitals and hospices who did not recognize their relationships.
Just last year, partners Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond experienced homophobia first hand when Pond suffered an aneurysm during a Florida vacation. When Pond was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Langbehn and her children were denied access to Pond because (in the hospital's opinion) she wasn't a "real" family member. As a result, Pond died alone, in spite of the fact that she and Langbehn had living wills, advanced directives and power-of-attorney documents.
This didn't matter, according to a heartless hospital worker, who allegedly told Langbehn that she was in an "antigay city and state." (This might be true of the State of Florida, but not of the City of Miami.) Langbehn, not surprisingly, sued the hospital.
Obviously an incident like this one does nothing for Jackson's reputation, especially when one considers the hospital's current financial problems. To their credit, officials from the Jackson Health System (JHS) dealt with the resulting brouhaha by meeting with a coalition of local LGBT organizations, including SAVE Dade (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone), to solve this pressing (and embarrassing) issue.
The end result of these negotiations, announced on April 12, was a change of policy for JHS that gave the same-sex partners of lesbian, bisexual and gay patients the same visiting rights as heterosexual spouses. Jackson redefined its definition of "family" to include people who are not legally related to the patient, including "spouses, domestic partners and both different-sex and same-sex significant others." Meanwhile, "while this is a positive step for the LGBT community in South Florida, the work to implement fair visitation policies throughout the rest of South Florida and across the state is far from over," announced SAVE Dade.
Coincidentally, on April 15 President Barack Obama, who's having his own problems with his LGBT constituents, issued a memorandum that calls for an end to discriminatory policies that limit hospital visitation to legal spouses and immediate family members. The president directed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to "ensure" that hospitals that participate in Medicare and Medicaid (that is, most hospitals) "respect the rights of patients to designate visitors" and allow those visitors the same privileges that married spouses and legitimate children take for granted. (The memo makes no mention of assisted living facilities.)
Obama then called Janice Langbehn, to express his sympathy and apologize for the injustice done to her and her dead partner. "I hope that taking these steps makes sure that no family every has to experience the nightmare that my family has gone though," she replied.
Unfortunately, the fight is far from over. As recently revealed by the Bilerico Project, two years ago Clay Greene and Harold Scull, an elderly couple living in "liberal" Sonoma County, California, were forcibly separated when Scull fell and became incapacitated.
Though the couple had provided for such an emergency, the County refused to recognize their relationship. It got a judge to declare Greene - who had allegedly acted violently against Scull - mentally incompetent, placed both men in separate facilities, gained the power of conservatorship from a sympathetic judge, and then proceeded to take over, sell or keep the couple's belongings. Through it all, Greene was not allowed to visit Scull, who died in August 2008. Needless to say, Greene is now suing the County.
Cases like this remind us that we must keep vigilant and ever-active in our struggle for the rights of same-sex couples. Horror stories like these will not cease until and unless lesbian and gay couples achieve the same rights that straight married couples now have, whether in Florida, California, or across these United States.