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Banishing gay partners to the waiting room

BRIAN O'LEARY BENNETT is a member of the state board of directors of Equality California, a gay rights organization, and a member of the State Executive Committee of the California Republican Party, 1999-2005.

TWO YEARS AGO, my then-domestic partner of seven years had a life-threatening stroke. Rick was only 39. I walked through the door of our home and found him stumbling, drooling, arms slowly flailing about, trying but unable to speak, banging against the walls. It is still a vivid, painful memory.

The paramedics had Rick at the hospital in minutes. Once there, it was just me and Rick’s incredibly competent doctors and nurses at Long Beach Memorial Hospital, no other family members.

Rick lay paralyzed, incoherent and speechless in the emergency ward. There was a relatively new, powerful and potentially dangerous drug for clearing the stroke-inducing blockage, but it had to be administered within three hours after the onset. The doctors could only estimate when Rick’s stroke began. This uncertainty made quick decision-making that much more urgent.

Give Rick the medicine or not? At first, it was believed that traces of blood had seeped into his brain cavity, making the treatment potentially lethal. The doctors went through CAT scans and other tests to determine with virtual certainty that no blood was present, so Rick could be given the drug. It was a harrowing event.

I was the one the doctors approached, counseled and queried. In the end, the right advice was given and timely decisions were reached. I was the one who gave permission, signed the liability forms, made the decisions. As it should be.

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I was one of two people, other than Rick, who remembered that he had suffered something akin to a mild stroke 10 years earlier. With this information the doctors were able to speed up their diagnosis and treatment. These are the histories loved ones memorize as they build their lives together. How dangerously cruel that because we are gay, some people want you to believe our responsibility for each other, our lives and our histories, shouldn’t count.

I thank God that Rick has had a near complete recovery. This is why it is infuriating -- and medieval -- that signature-gatherers are outside stores and restaurants, asking people to sign petitions to place an initiative on the June 2006 ballot that would take away the right of all gays and lesbians to make medical decisions for our domestic partners. The initiative would also invalidate domestic partnership rights for same-sex couples. All of them. The initiative would even ban hospital visitation rights for domestic partners, though its proponents deny it.

THE SPONSORS call it the “Voters Right to Protect Marriage Initiative.” But the state attorney general’s office has correctly renamed it “Marriage. Elimination of Domestic Partnership Rights” because that’s what it would do. What would these people have had me do on that Father’s Day weekend two years ago? When literally every minute counted, they would have had me try to track down Rick’s mother in Cincinnati on that holiday so that she could make medical decisions from afar, over the phone.

If this initiative qualifies and passes, this is how it will go down for tens of thousands of couples who failed, forgot or couldn’t afford the considerable expense to draft medical decision-making documents. (At the time of Rick’s stroke, there was not yet a law giving domestic partners an automatic right to make medical decisions for one another. We spent thousands of dollars to have legal documents drawn up spelling out our wishes about that and other decisions.) It’s nonsensical and heartless. The real-world consequences might well be tragic, not to mention wrenchingly unfair.

A large majority of California voters -- cited in polls -- and state legislators and now the courts all seem to agree: Gays and lesbians have the right and obligation to take care of their partners. Just this month, the California Supreme Court ruled that a San Diego country club must provide the same rights to a member’s domestic partner as it provides to a member’s spouse. And still the initiative’s proponents insist that we keep fighting yesterday’s battles over medical decision-making.

The proposed initiative declares that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in our state -- an issue clearly worthy of its own up-or-down vote. But its sponsors don’t want you to have one. They have had success around the country hiding repeal of domestic partnership rights within a “protect marriage” campaign. Many people who voted no on marriage most likely did not intend to say no to medical, visitation and other partnership rights too.

So when a signature-gatherer outside a restaurant or at the mall asks you to sign a petition for this initiative, read the fine print. Know all of what the initiative is going to do before you sign it. Know it would take away my right to care for my loved one during a medical emergency and much more.

I cannot begin to imagine what could have happened if the doctors in the emergency room had refused me the right to make medical decisions for Rick that day.

In those critical moments, no one should be put at risk because the person who loves him and knows him the best has been banished to a waiting room.

Please help stop this effort to eliminate rights for domestic partners.


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