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July 19, 2013

The Importance of Visitation Rights

Charles_douglas2On June 28, 2013, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a “reminder” to State Survey Agency Directors about access and visitation rights in long-term care (LTC) facilities.

The gist of the memo was to clarify that the 24-hour access and visitation rights residents already have include access and visitation by same-sex spouses and same-sex domestic partners. As the memo stated, “Residents must be notified of their rights to have visitors on a 24-hour basis, who could include, but are not limited to, spouses (including same-sex spouses), domestic partners (including same-sex domestic partners), other family members, or friends.” (Emphasis added.)

Denial of visitation rights to same-sex spouses and same-sex domestic partners is still a sad reality for many LGBT older people. The story of Charles and Douglas, found below, illustrates this point. (Note: while the CMS memo refers to LTC facilities, and Charles and Douglas’ story took place in a hospital, the underlying theme is the same, an utter lack of respect for a same-sex couple’s relationship by the people who should have been supporting them.)

By reiterating resident rights concerning access and visitation, CMS has sent a strong message not only to those who run LTC facilities but also to LGBT older adults, their family members, and friends that LGBT older adults and their loved ones must simply be treated the same as everyone else.   

Charles and Douglas’ Story

Like newlyweds the world over, Charles and Douglas were flying high on their return trip to Salt Lake City following their joyous marriage celebration in New York City in 2011. Hand in hand, they were still glowing after the ceremony that sealed the bond of their 12-year relationship. But onboard the flight back to Utah, a sobering thought began to sink in for Charles—the sad recognition that marriage equality was still something that existed only in a few states. He pulled aside a flight attendant and asked, “Will you let us know when we cross over into Pennsylvania? Because after that, we are no longer legal.”

Huge strides have been made in the past few years in the battle for marriage equality as one state after another slowly passes marriage equality.  There have been success stories from traditionally liberal East and West coast states, and a huge win this summer when Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was struck down by the Supreme Court. But only 13 states and the District of Columbia have passed marriage equality laws, so the struggle continues.

Charles and Douglas describe their home in Salt Lake City as being at “the heart of the reddest of red states.” Charles jokes that they’ve chosen to live in Salt Lake City precisely because “someone has to live on the front lines.” But Utah is home to all of Charles and Douglas’ family and friends and—despite the discrimination they have experienced—they have stayed and advocated there in the battle for gay rights and marriage equality.

Charles, 57, is the Director of Community Engagement and Awareness for SAGE Utah at the Utah Pride Center. He was previously married to a woman and has four children and six grandchildren. Douglas, 53, works as a propane delivery driver for Suburban Propane. They have been together for nearly 12 years and were legally married in New York City in September of 2011. The marriage was not only an affirmation of their loving relationship, but also a huge personal and political achievement after the real and traumatic discrimination they have experienced because their commitment is unrecognized by the law.

The discrimination was most evident during a hospital crisis in 2009. While travelling, Charles became seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. Assuming things might not be easy at the hospital, Doug drove home to collect all of their legal documents that proved that he had authority over medical decisions and had the right to be by Charles’ side. He and Charles also made explicit statements to the hospital staff that they were partners. Despite all this, their statements went completely unheeded. The hospital personnel continued to refer to Douglas as Charles’ “friend.” They kept Douglas from Charles’ side during the whole ordeal—isolating him in a separate room and not sharing any information with him beyond a statement that Charles was likely to die. (!) No further information was released until Charles’ son arrived at the hospital several hours later. It’s hard to believe a hospital could be so uncaring.

The scars of discrimination gave Charles and Douglas an added incentive to tie the knot as soon as they could. They decided to marry in New York City in 2011 on one of their frequent theatre trips to the Big Apple.  Alongside two lesbian couples, and in front of about 30 friendly faces that had come on the theatre tour, Charles and Douglas were thrilled to say “I do.”  Charles recalls, “It was pretty cool. The fact that we know we are legal—at least in some states—is so important to us. That we are fully a couple under the law—that means a lot to us.” 

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