White House Memo Extends Hospital Visitation Rights to Same-Sex Partners


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. 

(cross-posted from Campus Progress)


I appreciate the language that allows anyone to designate how they want their decision maker to be, not limited to same-sex couple. It reminds me of the comprehensive changes that are often lost in civil rights movements.

My only concern about this victory (which, of course, it clearly is) is that it might be part of a sort of 'appeasement' tactic. In other words, if the government can offer the components of marriage that are often cited as arguments for why the LGBT community is being deprived of rights, then gay-marriage as an issue loses its rhetorical power. So you might say, "so what-- as long as all those rights are extended, right?" Well, I think that assumes there is no intrinsic value to the notion of 'marriage'. Yet I am inclined to believe that there is tremendous significance to the idea of 'marriage' as a word and as an institution because it draws the clear line between 'classes' of citizenship; its why I (and others) are not satisfied with 'civil unions' even when the associated rights/privileges are comparable to those of marriage. As long as marriage represents a state-sponsored relationship, its important we don't restrict the LGBT community from accessing it. I just worry that people will use instances such as this as a justification for why the LGBT community 'doesn't really need' marriage. after all.

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