Monday, February 9, 2009

An Update to Janice Langbehn's Story: Seeking a Hearing for Justice in an Anti-Gay State

I have been following the latest developments in the story of Janice Langbehn and Lisa Marie Pond with great concern. I blogged about this story almost a year ago (

In February 2007, Langbehn and Pond were in Miami from Washington State with three of their children, headed for a cruise vacation. Pond collapsed and was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital. When Langbehn asked to see her life partner, she was, she reports, refused that right. Hospital staff told her she was in an anti-gay state with anti-gay laws. The hospital did not relent even after she had her power of attorney to act on Pond’s behalf faxed to them. Langbehn was allowed to see the comatose Pond only as a priest administered last rites.

Langbehn has filed a federal suit against Jackson Memorial, claiming emotional distress and negligence. Last week, a number of websites reported that the hospital is now fighting to have the suit dismissed on the ground that the hospital has no obligation to allow patients’ visitors ( and

This story grabs my heart-strings for a number of reasons, all rooted in my own personal experience. I state that disclaimer here, in case there are readers who find it off-putting when bloggers comment on a case like this by reference to their own experiences. For readers with such a penchant, please beware: much that I say from here on out in this posting will reference my own experiences.

As I have noted in a previous posting (, in my years with Steve, he and I have had a number of eye-opening experiences dealing with hospitals and care facilities as a committed openly gay couple. Since I have recounted those experiences previously (in the posting just cited), I will not rehash them again.

What I do want to say here, though, is that these experiences have made me extremely leery of medial professionals in general. Most medical professionals I encounter are marvelous human beings without a drop of prejudice in them. I know from first-hand experience, though, that it is possible to encounter troubling, demeaning, life-disrupting prejudice as a gay person seeking medical treatment, or supporting a partner or a family member who is receiving medical care. And that makes me live in fear of precisely the kind of thing that happened to Janice Langbehn and Lisa Marie Pond.

It should not be this way. But it is. And it remains this way in far too many places in this nation. What happened to Langbehn and Pond can happen to other couples. No one who is gay and/or who supports gay persons and their rights can afford to be oblivious to the possibility that a gay person or gay couple will receive second-class treatment by the medical profession, in many places in the United States. We need to work to make this possibility impossible in the future.

I also connect to the story of Janice Langbehn and Lisa Marie Pond at another level. As I have noted in several postings on this blog (including the one cited at the start of this entry), Steve and I lived in Florida for a year and own a house there. We bought that house on the basis of promises of job security made to us by an employer who then broke those promises, leaving us with a second mortgage that we can afford to carry only by depleting our savings, since we do not have sufficient monthly income to cover a mortgage we assumed solely because we believed promises made to us that turned out to be false.

Again, I have told that story previously, and won’t repeat it here. What I do want to note, though, is a troubling pattern of the use of courts and legal tactics to bully gay people who challenge unjust treatment—a pattern of revictimization in which the very protest of an individual who has received grossly unjust treatment is then used as the basis for further grossly unjust treatment. That is a component of the Langbehn-Pond story. It was also a component of Steve’s and my story in Florida. It is perhaps not accidental that both of these stories played out in Florida.

I am struck by the fact that, having already violated Langbehn’s human rights, and having trampled on her very humanity, Jackson Memorial is now turning around and seeking to use court power to have her suit dismissed. It also concerns me that Jackson Memorial is a teaching hospital for the University of Miami. What kind of example does the behavior the hospital exhibited towards Langbehn in a serious personal crisis set for the students it teaches? And what kind of example—what kind of ethical example—does the attempt to use the courts to bully her into silence now teach its medical interns?

I zero in on that question of the example we give to those we teach, because it is one of the many unanswered questions Steve and I also have following our experience with a church-sponsored university in Florida. There, too, the violation of our humanity was a stark example for any of the school’s students to see—an example of unethical behavior that totally contradicts what the school says it stands for. It was a lesson in what the institution really believes, despite its rhetoric about social justice and compassion for the downtrodden.

And there, too, the initial assault on our humanity was compounded by the use of legal threats designed to silence us. Within days after I had signed a severance agreement from the university, I received a letter from a law firm in San Francisco, informing me that the agreement had been canceled.

The law firm specializes in defending corporations and universities when these institutions have given the appearance of discrimination. It strikes me as . . . interesting . . . that law firms exist solely to defend institutions that have engaged in prejudice from being held accountable for their prejudice. It seems bizarre to me that there are lawyers willing not only to defend institutions that engage in gross prejudice, but to help those institutions then turn around and use bullying tactics to silence those calling the institution to accountability for its injustice.

The letter I received from this law firm made an interesting (and very malevolent) claim. Because that claim has pertinence to Janice Langbehn’s story—and to the situation of all gay people living in Florida—I want to discuss it here.

The letter informed me that the severance agreement I had made was being canceled because I had informed my spouse—namely, Steve (he was named, and the term “spouse” was used)—of the circumstances of my termination. Because he had told others of those circumstances, and he had the legal right to do so since he had not signed a termination agreement, my severance payments were being canceled. Never mind that Steve was actually present when I was terminated, and reported what he saw with his own eyes—e.g., the use of four armed security guards to lock me out of my office and escort me off-campus. By a Christian institution, one that claims to live according to United Methodist Social Principles.

Note what this letter was doing: as hospital staff told Langbehn at Jackson Memorial, Florida is an anti-gay state with anti-gay laws. Florida is, in fact, a state in which there is no recognition of gay marriage or even of civil unions, except where (in rare cases) local communities or employers recognize such relationships.

But in that anti-gay state with anti-gay laws, it is perfectly possible for a discriminatory employer to twist the relationship of a committed gay couple—a relationship afforded no legal rights and protection at all—against the gay couple and use that relationship as the basis for an action that compounds one discriminatory act with another. This twisting of the situation in which we found ourselves as a gay couple in Florida—a situation with no rights at all—as the basis for attacking us further, after we had been kicked to the curb, was particularly malicious and cruel. It was designed to hurt at a deeply personal level.

I am harping on this experience because it points to one of the primary challenges that gay folks discriminated against in states like Florida face, if they seek legal recourse. As the laws are now set up in states like Florida, they make it almost impossible for gay people to obtain a hearing when they seek basic justice after they are treated inhumanely by employers, hospitals, etc. All power is in the hands of the employer or the institution, and if the employer or institution happens to be homophobic, it is entirely possible to twist the law to compound the very discrimination about which a gay person who has experienced discrimination is complaining.

Steve and I did not succeed in finding any legal way to challenge what was done to us, because we were advised by more than one credible counselor that, in a state in which the power is totally in the hands of an employer and a person can legally be fired for being gay, and in which homophobic prejudice is deeply entrenched, we would likely find ourselves even further bloodied after a futile court battle. We were told that, if the institution for which we had worked had shown no qualms about using homophobia to justify its firing of us, and had gone to the length of having a law firm accuse us of being spouses who had violated a legal agreement binding on spouses, we could expect even stronger assaults from that institution in court.

With juries who would almost certainly side with anyone attacking a gay couple . . . . And with no assurance of legal or financial support from any organization defending human rights or the rights of gay couples, as we struggled to pay an extra mortgage we had assumed because of false promises made to us by this institution, whose top executives knew of our financial dilemma—had, indeed, created it for us . . . .

In such situations, nothing will change until the laws themselves change. And that will not happen until those who make the laws and use them to justify discrimination are challenged by citizens who want to build a more just and humane society. I admire Langbehn for fighting. She deserves our support. She deserves the support of anyone in this nation who believes that every human being deserves fair and unbiased treatment by medical professionals. She deserves the support of anyone who sees that it is completely inhumane to keep a life partner from spending the last moments of her partner’s life with that partner.

But she is fighting an uphill battle in an anti-gay state with anti-gay laws. Until those of us concerned about horrible injustices like this work to see that gay people and gay couples have legal protection from the kind of discrimination Janice Langbehn and Lisa Marie Pond endured in Florida, these situations will continue to happen in the many places in our country where prejudice is not only celebrated but legally enshrined.