Janice Langbehn, a Lacey resident, received the Presidential Citizens Medal on Oct. 20 from President Barack Obama in recognition of her activism in achieving hospital visitation rights for same sex couples.
The Presidential Citizens Medal is the second highest honor for civilians in our country and is awarded to those who have somehow served the U.S. or its citizens.
“I don’t take this honor lightly,” said Langbehn. She explained that she feels “the huge burden of it” and understands the position she is carrying in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning community.
Langbehn does not know who nominated her for the award, but said she was very surprised to be among the nominees.
Obama has ordered a presidential memorandum to ensure that any hospital receiving Medicaid or Medicare will leave visitation rights to the discretion of the patient.
According to Langbehn “the presidential memorandum regarding our family’s situation is not one that could be reversed as some claim upon the change of political party in the white house.”
Langbehn’s advice to same sex couples is to make sure you have proper documentation in the form of a power of attorney and other relevant forms to ensure each partner can speak for the other even if they are incapacitated.
Langbehn’s activism began a month after her partner Lisa Pond’s death which took place at the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida. While on vacation with three of their four adopted children, Pond collapsed due to a brain aneurysm on Feb. 18, 2007.
Langbehn was told that they were in an “anti-gay city and state” by a hospital social worker after Langbehn and their children were denied visitation rights to see Pond.
Health care providers knew within 15 minutes that Pond’s condition was seriously life-threatening.
After waiting 20 minutes with no word on Pond’s situation, the social worker approached Langbehn requesting proper documentation of Langbehn’s health care proxy for Pond.
Langbehn immediately had the health proxy, referred to as a power of attorney in Washington State, faxed to the Miami hospital.
However, another hour passed before Langbehn was spoken to again. This time a health care provider asked to place a pressure monitor in her brain due to bleeding.
Langbehn couldn’t believe she was being denied visitation even with proper documentation, as she is a social worker herself. With no additional information given to her, Langbehn contacted her own Group Health doctor back in Washington to get an explanation about what was most likely happening with her partner.
After Langbehn was spoken to by the first doctor it was an additional two hours before Langbehn was again approached by health care providers as they told her that Pond’s pupils were fixed and dilated and it was most likely terminal. They told her she could go be with Pond.
However, when those health care providers left, hospital security did not allow Langbehn visitation. Even their jointly adopted children, with birth certificates available, were restricted from seeing Pond. Langbehn was told that they were too young.
When Pond’s sister arrived six hours later the family was finally allowed visitation. However, Langbehn was only permitted a five minute visitation, when a priest performed the last rights.
After her partner died the next morning without Langbehn by her side, Langbehn sued the hospital.
“It took a little soul searching and then I contacted Lambda Legal,” said Langbehn. Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS civil rights. Their western regional office is located in Los Angeles, California.
The emotionally wearing aspect of Langbehn’s story speaks volumes of her dedication to telling and reliving her story time and time again after the incident.
“What happened to us was wrong on many levels,” said Langbehn. “If I was to honor Lisa’s memory I had to speak up.”
According to South Puget Sound Community College Senator Mathew Shrader “She’s done an awful lot in telling her story… hers is a very moving story that has had the ability to affect change in a positive way.”
Publicity for Langbehn’s cause increased when the Miami Herald discovered an article covering her story in the Olympian and questioned the hospital about the events and the social worker’s quote.
It was denied by the hospital that this had been said.
Upon the incident gaining more news coverage, Obama became aware of her story and her activism efforts.
Shrader has been aware of Langbehn’s story for some time now. He has watched what measures Obama has taken in terms of rights for same sex couples and describes the president’s changes as “something he did rather quickly.”
Nicole DiGerlando, an advisor for the Queer Straight Alliance club at SPSCC, worries about the hospitals that are privately run. She too believes that everyone deserves to have whoever they deem loved ones with them when they are in hospital care and this may be denied to those at private hospitals.
Although DiGerlando thinks government interference can occasionally make the public “more resentful,” she said that the government will need to step in to deal with issues as big as rights for same sex couples.
According to DiGerlando one of the reasons her and her partner relocated to Washington was an incident in which her partner was physically harmed by the Philadelphia Police Department. At the time DiGerlando’s partner had been working in activism efforts and was targeted by the police because of her sexual orientation.
Marital rights for same sex couples are another issue at hand, often deemed by politicians to be a state government issue.
“Marriage benefits such as tax breaks through the IRS is a federal decision therefore how can you not say that gay marriage is not a federal decision?” said Shrader.
In the article highlighting Langbehn’s achievements in The Olympian, Gary Randall, a member of the Faith & Freedom Network, was quoted saying that “redefining natural marriage, a corner stone in every civilization for the past 5 thousand years, is not the proper way to address similar needs,” when referring to same sex marriage activism.
According to SPSCC Anthropology Professor Patrick Chapman, “The phrase natural marriage is nonsensical. Marriage does not exist in nature, it is a cultural phenomenon.”
One argument against same sex marriage legalization in the U.S. is simply that many interpret the Bible as strictly calling for marriage only between a man and a woman. Therefore, any other type of marriage must be illegal.
“In Biblical times a typical marriage was arranged by fathers for a 12-16 year old female and her immediate cousin, who was in his late 20s or 30s. Quite frankly, traditional Biblical marriages are illegal in the USA,” said Chapman.
On Nov. 3 from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. the QSA, in cooperation with DEC, will host its Civil Rights Exhibit. The event will be held in building 27 in room 119.