President Obama began fulfilling his campaign promises to the many men and women of the gay rights movement last night, when he ordered the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to adopt new rules allowing hospital visitation rights to same-sex couples. In a special memorandum to the HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the president stated:
“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…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 president’s words are powerful. They uncover the greater truth which is often lost in the debates over gay rights and the derision of a supposed gay lifestyle. This truth is that all men and women, regardless of orientation, seek and deserve love and dignity, comfort and happiness, both in life and the waning moments near death. What is missing in these debates is the fundamental acknowledgment that we are talking about family. It calls into question why anyone, of any political party, or of any religious background, would deny another human being, the most basic dignity: to not be alone.
So far, President Obama’s record on gay rights has been lackluster at best; largely because of the great promise he held as candidate Obama. He avowed to lift the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the U.S. military – a matter that could have been easily addressed by executive order in his first days in office. To date, though he has instructed Secretary Gates to move toward repealing the law, the status quo remains the same. The president has also all but given up on the repeal of DOMA (The Defense of Marriage Act), signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1996, defining marriage exclusively between one man and one woman, and giving each state the right to ignore same-sex marriages from other states.
Although the president has continued his verbal support of civil unions for same-sex couples, he has done so without any affirmative action or active policy engagement. Today is different. For the first time, in his tenure as the president of the United States, Barack Obama has stood strong with his gay and lesbian supporters. And perhaps this is most impressive: because it is not a big win politically. He has very little to gain from allowing gay and lesbian partners to visit one another in hospitals.The headline may pass as quickly as it came. Very few networks will spend much time covering this issue. And yet it reflects one of the basic tenements of the Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
Over the past 20 years, European nations have led on the issue of gay equality. It is ironic that we now live in an America divided along ideological lines, where President Obama and liberals are derided as “socialists” as if socialism, particularly in its modern, European form, is “oppressive and regressive”. The truth of the matter is many of our European allies, including England, France, The Netherlands and Sweden, are all “socialist” nations: who enjoy far greater individual freedom than we do. They provide qualitative universal health care coverage, experience relatively low unemployment, and allowing marriage and human equality for their gay and lesbian citizens. Only among the uneducated and uniformed of our society, are these pursuits considered harmful.
Many on the far right claim America should remain the de facto leader in the world, policing democratic values abroad, whilst they deride the Obama administration’s efforts to give dignity to families who cannot afford health care, and allow families who are different, the ability to express their love, support and protection of one another. It is both ironic and sad. And those who claim to believe in freedom yet would deny dignity in sickness and death, must seriously question their reasoning.
I am proud of our president today. He has made a giant step forward to becoming more than just a spokesman for what ought to be – and become an engineer of what should be, what can be and what will be. In that America, we all sleep better knowing that when our days become dark, we are not alone.