– Two weeks ago, President Obama mandated that almost all hospitals in this country must extend visitation rights to the partners of gay men and lesbians and also respect patients’ choices of who will make critical health-care decisions on their behalf.

In his memo, Obama stated that hospitals should not be able to deny visitation privileges on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The Washington Post noted that this might be “ the most significant step so far in his efforts to expand the rights of gay Americans.”

The president directed the Department of Health and Human Services to prohibit discrimination in hospital visitation, affecting any hospital that receives Medicare or Medicaid funding, starting an HHS rule-making process that could take several months, according to officials.

Though the document clearly focuses on gay men and lesbians, it will also affect widows and widowers who have been unable to receive visits from a friend or companion.

It will also allow some religious orders to designate someone other than a family member to make medical decisions.

“Every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides — whether in a sudden medical emergency or a prolonged hospital stay,” Obama wrote in his memo. “Uniquely affected are gay and lesbian Americans who are barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they have spent decades of their lives.”

According to officials, there is a back-story to Obama’s recent directive. Apparently, he was very moved when he heard about partners Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond, who were taking a vacation in Miami with several of their children when Lisa suffered a stroke and was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Janice was apparently denied access to Lisa for 18 hours, only being allowed to see her mate when a priest came to deliver last rites. It is reported that she was told by a hospital social worker that she was in an anti-gay city, and that she should deal with it.

Not surprisingly, Obama has met with complaints from all sides of the gay rights issue.

Some gay activists contend that this administration is still moving too slowing to ensure broader concerns such as same-sex marriage recognition and the passage of an employment non-discrimination act.

Opponents of same-sex marriage and gay rights in general argue that actions such as extending hospital visitation to gay and lesbian patients provides “special rights” to gays and are merely a part of an effort to appease a particular group of people and undermine the institution of traditional marriage, to boot.

Some have even argued that this action could potentially increase conflicts between families, same-sex partners and hospital staff.

The president’s memorandum does not appear to move the administration any closer to repealing the socially oppressive Defense of Marriage Act, nor ridding Americans of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policies.

But, it remains a milestone, nonetheless, because it forces everyone to face up to the dignity of same-sex relationships and doing so, as The New York Times noted, “ without sparking a broad cultural debate or fight with Congress.”

At a recent Los Angeles fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, Obama met up with hecklers shouting, “Repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” which has banned gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military since 1993.

The president appeared to be very mindful of his 2008 campaign pledge and January State of the Union vow to end the controversial policy when he told the audience that Sen. Boxer didn’t vote in favor of the policy in the first place and stated that it would have made more sense to “holler” at the people who oppose repealing the policy, including himself.

Indeed, the Pentagon has announced that it was relaxing enforcement of the ban, thereby clearing a path for eventual repeal.

It is also important to recognize that in the first 15 months of office, this administration has effected the passage of hate crime legislation and held the first Gay Pride Day celebration at the White House.

According to The New York Times, the State Department has begun issuing embassy ID cards to same-sex partners of diplomats, Housing and Urban Development has ended discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing assistance programs, and Health and Human Services has pledged to change its policies regarding HIV-positive visitors and immigrants.

Certainly, these actions are relatively small steps, but admirable nonetheless, given the contention surrounding issue of same-sex couples.

Permitting caring gay couples hospital visitation rights and the ability to make critical medical decisions on each other’s behalf is an affirmation of the sanctity of all committed relationships.

 

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book, “The Written Song: The Antebellum African-American Press in the Northeast,” is due for publication this year. He can be contacted at:

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