Hospital Visitation Rights a Step in the Right Direction for Obama


Published: May 5, 2010

President Barack Obama, influenced by the tragic story of Janice Langbehn, who was barred from visiting her dying partner by hospital staff, recently decided to grant same-sex couples hospital visitation rights.

A recent policy change would preserve hospital visitation rights for LGBT patients’ loved ones. (Luke Cusumano/The Observer)

Lisa Pond collapsed suddenly from a brain aneurism and was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital. Her partner, Langbehn, frantically paced the waiting room as she and their children waited for word on Pond’s condition. Langbehn was shown no compassion by hospital staff, who told her that she was in an “anti-gay city in an anti-gay state” before shutting her out of her dying partner’s hospital room. Langbehn and her children were all robbed of the chance to be with their loved one in her last moment of consciousness. They missed their chance to say goodbye, which is something they can never get back.

Hospital visitation rights are a step in the right direction because they will ensure that all people will retain their basic human rights in times of medical emergency. Though the ruling will cover all patients, it will very positively affect gay and lesbian patients who are in some instances denied fair treatment even when all the right papers are on-file. There have been many documented cases where hospitals have openly and knowingly ignored Advanced Care Directives (ACDs) that recognized same-sex spouses. ACDs designate someone the patient trusts to make decisions about medical care if the patient becomes unable to make these decisions. Hospitals, however, sometimes side with parents or other blood relatives who reject gay or lesbian children’s wishes even when ACDs have been in place and recorded, ignoring the wishes of gay and lesbian patients.

The new policy will clearly state that any hospital that received Medicare and Medicaid funding must allow patients to decide who can visit them and will outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and other characteristics.

The story of Langbehn and her partner  was used by gay rights organizations to give faces and names to the victims of discrimination. This tactic is meant to arouse sympathy and move people who may otherwise be apathetic about gay rights. It appears to be working, as Obama specifically chose their story to help drum up support among voters. The story highlights an extreme case of what can happen when rights are not clearly defined by law.

The denial of these rights may sound like a horrible injustice to many people and may even make some wonder why the Obama administration is granting rights for same-sex couples little by little. Can the affirmation of gay and lesbian hospital visitation rights ultimately weaken the case for marriage equality? Wouldn’t it be much easier and more fair and just to simply push for marriage equality instead of doling out individually a few of the privileges and legal protections that automatically come with marriage? My answer is no.

Do we really want a culture war throughout the entire country over issues affecting the lives of millions of Americans, especially when the outcome is likely to negatively impact gays and lesbians for years to come? The issue of hospital visitation rights is only one step in the eventual delivery of full marriage rights to same-sex couples, just one more building block in the creation of a fair and equitable society. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and movements that push against traditionally held values take time. There are consequences to pushing an issue too quickly.

According to The New York Times, pollsters say that, while generally support is building for same-sex marriage, voters resist more when they fear the issue is being pressed too hard and too fast. Don’t believe it? Let’s get real: even in heavily democratic New York, the proposed same-sex marriage bill was rejected by a 38-to-24 vote in the State Senate. In California and Maine, devastating losses in statewide referendums have restricted marriage to straight couples.

Many of Obama’s more liberal supporters have argued for bold change, but this move indicates a willingness to act gradually to eventually eliminate discrimination against gays and lesbians. Additionally, in a time of crippling economic hardship and war, these small steps toward equality are both strategic and smart. A fight with Congress would not be beneficial for anyone.

While many gay and lesbian organizations became disenchanted over the failure of the administration to act quickly to legalize same-sex marriage and reverse “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, the administration has taken significant steps in a complex process to end discrimination against gays and lesbians and overturn the policy. For example, the State Department started issuing embassy ID cards to same-sex partners of diplomats, Housing and Urban Development ended discrimination in housing assistance programs, and the Department of Health and Human Services pledged to change its policies regarding HIV-positive visitors and immigrants.

A Houston Chronicle report called the granting of hospital visitation rights, “sidestepping the controversial question of whether same-sex couples are entitled to broader legal recognition of partnership.” This step-by-step approach frustrates many in the gay community who voted for Obama expecting to see significant and immediate change. However, conservatives are likely to stand aside for the memo and more significant changes have the potential to alienate moderate Democrats at a time when their support is necessary in the health care overhaul.

Liberals are more likely to receive better responses from the nation as a whole if gay rights are passed gradually. Passing gay rights gradually will prevent a culture shock and outright rejection, giving conservatives a chance to get used to the idea of the gay community having equal rights.

The affirmation of visitation rights is significant and will affect the lives of many same-sex couples that formerly did not have the benefits of being protected under the law. This doesn’t mean gay rights supporters should simply wait for handouts. On the contrary, they should use this victory to push for even more changes. Same-sex visitation rights are not the whole ball game, but they are a very important step in the fight for equality.