We argue about wedding venues, bigoted florists, and anti-gay bakers... but as John Corvino wrote in Debating Same-Sex Marriage (a debate John Corvino helped us all win), "marriage may be 'for better or for worse,' but it’s during the 'for worse' when the legal incidents become most urgent." I recalled Corvino's point as I read a letter from a reader who was there when two men, a gay couple, were experiencing the worst.

Letter after the jump...

I'm writing to share a story with you that summed up, for me, what the struggle for queer equality represents.

I've been an ambulance-based paramedic for 15 years. Yesterday, I was on an emergency call that was dispatched as a "possible heart attack" at a nearby fire station. Within a minute, we got the updated information that firefighters on scene were performing CPR. We arrived at the front of the station within five minutes, where we found a man who looked as gray and purple as any dead person...except he wasn't dead anymore. Our colleagues on the fire engine had converted his lethal heart rhythm with two shocks. He looked terrible, but he was alive, which was certainly an improvement over the state in which they had found him. The man appeared to be in his mid-sixties.

It turns out that he had rung the doorbell of the station himself. When they answered the intercom, he told them that he thought he was having a heart attack. By time they made it down the stairs to check him out, he was already lying on the ground with no pulses. It happened that fast. Since CPR and defibrillation are most effective when a person gets them immediately, this guy was super lucky.

As we were working to get him ready for transport, I noticed another man crouched down, watching the scene intently from a few feet away. He looked upset. He hadn't been there at the start of the call, so no one had any idea who he was. Gesturing toward the patient, one of the firefighters asked, "Do you know him?" The man nodded. "That's my husband." He looked completely terrified.

I asked him if he wanted to come with us in the back of the ambulance. Normally, we don't allow family in the back of the truck—especially in critical situations, since we usually have two or three paramedics back there already. But there was serious potential for our patient to lose pulses again, and I didn't want his husband to not be able to be holding his hand if that happened. He climbed in.

At the hospital, we introduced the husband to the nursing staff and the attending physician (who happened to be a woman, which is still pretty uncommon in emergency medicine). Everyone was fantastic. The doctor explained that the patient's situation was extremely critical, and that the husband should call close family in right away.

What struck me about the entire call was... well, how normal it all was. I don't know if you had the chance to get through all of Johann Hari's book Chasing the Scream (I read it after you had him on the show), but he refers to the legalization of pot as "boring," because after all the fucking drama is over and the world doesn't end, there's a bunch of really boring administrative tasks to deal with. This situation was the same. I've been on hundreds and hundreds of similar scenes, tragic and sad, with older straight couples dealing with the sudden loss (or near loss) of a life partner. It looks pretty much like this situation looked, except those straight couples have never wondered whether they would be allowed to be at the bedside of their partner. For the first time in history, this guy didn't have to, either.

This couple's mere existence is, in many ways, a series of miracles. They have been together for 34 years, which means they met in 1981. First miracle: they both didn't die. Second miracle: they made it through 34 years (which is a minor miracle for any couple). They've been alive—and together—through some of worst and best moments of queer life in the U.S. in the last half century. They got to get married after being together for three decades. And at the most critical moment in their relationship thus far, everyone in the mainstream medical establishment who interacted with them literally did not bat an eyelash. It was just another heart attack.

Somehow, that says more to me about how far we have come than any Supreme Court ruling.

John was recounting the story of Janice K. Langbehn and Lisa Marie Pond when he pointed out that the legal incidents of marriage were most crucial during the worst moments of our lives. A couple for 18 years, Langbehn and Pond were on a trip to Florida with three of their four kids when Pond became critically ill. They weren't treated like spouses—or domestic partners or anything else—by the staff at the hospital where Pond was taken. Corvino:

As I said at the opening of the book, marriage may be “for better or for worse,” but it’s during the “for worse” when the legal incidents become most urgent. As it happens, Janice Langbehn is herself an emergency-room social worker. Although one can never fully prepare for this sort of nightmare, she and her partner had taken what legal steps they could, executing advance directives, living wills, and powers-of-attorney. Janice immediately called a friend back home, and within a half hour their documents were faxed to the hospital.

It didn’t matter.

Despite the documents, and despite repeated pleas, hospital staff refused to acknowledge Janice and the children as family for eight full hours. They refused to accept information from Janice about her partner’s medical history or to provide her with regular updates about Lisa’s condition. They refused to let Janice and the children see her, even after doctors acknowledged that there was no medical reason preventing visitation. Meanwhile Lisa—who had been semiconscious and responsive upon arrival—slipped into a coma.

Janice was admitted to Lisa’s bedside once, for five minutes, when a priest arrived to administer last rites.
Eventually Lisa was transferred to another unit, but no one told Janice. It was not until 11:30 PM, when Lisa’s sister (a blood relative) arrived, that hospital staff finally acknowledged the family, informed them of the transfer, and allowed Janice and the children to be with their now-comatose wife and mother. She was pronounced dead the next morning.

Support The Stranger

I hope we live in a country now where something like this could never happen again.

And remember: when you hear Cruz, Rubio, Trump, Bush, Huckabee, Santorum, Carson, et al, pledging to undo or ignore the Supreme Court's 2015 decision on marriage equality, they're telling you they want to turn the United States back into a country where something like this could happen again, and happen routinely.

If I may paraphrase Maya Angelou: When someone tells you who they are, believe them. And these guys—and Carly too—are clearly telling us who and what they are: monsters and assholes.