HeatherN examines the case of the man who was denied access to his partner’s hospital room, despite a joint power of attorney agreement.
A short while ago I wrote a little article about some of the problems with the mainstream LGBT movement’s focus on same-sex marriage. I mentioned a variety of LGBT rights which marriage equality wouldn’t address, such as employment discrimination, hate crime legislation, and trans* rights. One thing I didn’t mention, however, was hospital visitation rights. The main reason I didn’t mention this is because back in 2010, Obama signed an executive order that mandated that every hospital that receives Medicaid or Medicare funding needed to treat same-sex partners as spouses. Although the executive order isn’t perfect, it covers the vast majority of U.S. hospitals. So, in my article, I didn’t mention hospital visitation. It turns out, I probably should have.
Last week in Missouri, Roger Gorley, a gay man, was refused the right to visit his partner (Allen) who was in the hospital and he was subsequently arrested. As is so often the case with such stories, there are conflicting reports about what exactly happened, but a few details have surfaced. After reading a few different articles about this incident, it appears as though the events went down as follows: Roger tried to see Allen in the hospital, Allen’s brother, Lee was there and wouldn’t let Roger see Allen. A nurse sided with Lee refusing to let Roger see Allen. Roger became upset at which point the nurse called the police, who arrested Roger. Roger says there is now a restraining order filed against him; the hospital says it never filed one against him. Added bonus: Roger and Allen have a joint power of attorney, so Roger should be making medical decisions for Allen if Allen is incapable of making them himself.
In my Facebook news feed I’ve been seeing a lot of chatter about whether Roger overreacted, whether the hospital was right to escort Roger from the building, whether the hospital is institutionally homophobic, whether arresting Roger was a step too far, etc. But all of that is nearly immaterial, or rather, doesn’t really address the moment that started this whole thing. The whole thing kicked off because someone in Allen’s family and a hospital nurse were able to bar Roger from seeing Allen simply because Allen and Roger are a same-sex couple. Roger wasn’t seen as “family,” as a partner and a husband; he might as well have been a stranger. All the official documents that were meant to prevent this sort of situation (the power of attorney, civil partnership, Obama’s executive order) weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.
The other response I’ve been seeing is that this incident is exactly the sort of reason we need same-sex marriage. If they were married, it’s argued, this would have never happened. To which I generally respond, what’s a marriage certificate except another piece of paper? It is a very special piece of paper which our society has invested a great deal of meaning. However, what if someone doesn’t recognize that piece of paper as having the same meaning for a same-sex couple as a heterosexual couple? If Roger and Allen had a marriage certificate, that nurse could have done the same thing s/he did with the power of attorney and civil partnership: refused to acknowledge it or look it up and confirm it. It would have been just as illegal, but just as possible.
You know how when a straight couple goes into the hospital, the staff asks for proof of marriage before allowing one partner to see the other? Or you know when a straight couple brings their child into the hospital, they are both asked to provide proof they’re both the legal guardians before being allowed to go into the examining room with their kid? No? Oh yeah, that doesn’t ever happen.
You know how when a same-sex couple goes into a hospital, even in a state which allows same-sex marriage, they’re sometimes asked to provide proof that they are married? You know how in states where same-sex couples are allowed to adopt children, proof of guardianship is sometimes required before both parents are allowed to visit their child? Yeah. That happens all the time.
Equality legislation doesn’t cause the huge sweeping changes to society we like to think it does.