My friends at Princeton's feminist blog Equal Writes alerted me to some big news coming out of the White House yesterday afternoon: a presidential memorandum which orders hospitals receiving Medicare/Medicaid funding (that's basically all hospitals) to allow patients to designate visitors other than immediate family members:
There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital. In these hours of need and moments of pain and anxiety, all of us would hope to have a hand to hold, a shoulder on which to lean -- a loved one to be there for us, as we would be there for them. Yet 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. Often, a widow or widower with no children is denied the support and comfort of a good friend. Members of religious orders are sometimes unable to choose someone other than an immediate family member to visit them and make medical decisions on their behalf. Also uniquely affected are gay and lesbian Americans who 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.
The memo goes on, and you can read it all here
, but it's important to pause for a moment and reflect what a big deal hospital visitation rights are for LGBT Americans. From my point of view as a student of the history of gender and sexuality, this is a particularly potent reminder of strides that the US government has made with regard to LGBT rights--not quite thirty years ago, when the AIDS epidemic first hit and was vastly disproportionately affecting gay men, there was of course no such directive from the White House requiring hospitals to respect the wishes of their patients. And as recently as 2007, as the New York Times noted
in its article on the subject, a Florida hospital denied a woman the right to be with her partner and their four children in her final moments. These are the sort of astonishing matters of life-and-death in which, hopefully, LGBT Americans will no longer be treated as second-class citizens.
What I also find remarkable about this memorandum is that Obama found a way to respect the rights of LGBT Americans without getting entangled in the marriage equality tug-of-war. Just as you don't have to be married to someone to give them power of attorney, you shouldn't have to be married to designate someone able to visit you in intensive care. I'm optimistic that this is a pattern the federal government can follow without needing to put all their eggs in the marriage basket or to wait for individual states to fight back against the National Organization for Marriage
on that front.