Whatever you think of gay marriage, civil unions, or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the military, one thing all compassionate human beings should agree on is that those in stress, discomfort, emergency or facing death benefit from the presence and companionship of loved ones. President Obama took a small but significant step in that direction Thursday when he asked HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to use her rulemaking authority to expand hospital visitation rights to non-family members.
While the new rules would affect many who lie in hospitals awaiting surgery, recovering from illness or facing death, those who would most obviously benefit are gay Americans. In making his public request of the HHS Secretary, Obama acknowledged as much when he wrote in his memorandum,
“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” but are “unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated.”
To face fear and suffering and death is a personal trauma in the best of circumstances. To face those emotional traumas alone when there are loved ones and friends willing to offer their presence and support, but who are denied access by antiquated rules, is inexcusable. Those heartless rules, based more on administrative convenience than patient concern, will soon be a thing of the past. Humanity and dignity will find their ways to hospitals across America if Secretary Sebelius complies with the President’s request. And there is little doubt she will.
Long the subject of cultural and legal indignities, gay and lesbian Americans can look forward to having at least one indignity erased. This act of compassion will not provide full rights to our gay and lesbian fellow citizens. It will not allow them to marry or serve in our military without discrimination. It will not prevent discrimination in the courts or the workplace. It will not recognize them as a protected class to fully prevent discrimination.
The road to equality for gays has been long, arduous and piecemeal. Slowly they have chipped away at indignity and discrimination. Laws that once made their private consensual conduct criminal are off the books. Civil unions have been recognized by many states. Some, but not all, are beginning to recognize rights to inheritance and inclusion in insurance policies. DADT is under review. There have been steps, but no overarching recognition of the rights of equal citizenship. This decision is another step toward the goal. It is not the end of the struggle. But it is decent and honorable, compassionate and dignified, and most of all it is right.
Cross posted at The Moderate Voice.