Excerpt: “It was as though we were on life support for equal rights, human dignity.”
by Rev. Stephen Parelli, Bronx, NY
Written September 16, 2012
We’ve been home less than two weeks after traveling abroad for two months working in five foreign countries on behalf of human rights for LGBT people, and on two separate occasions – here in the USA – Jose and I have been mistreated as a married couple by professionals who should have known better.
The first occasion occurred at US immigrations upon our arrival in the States. The officer, a Caribbean male in his 50s who checked our passports, upon learning our marital status and that our work abroad was in the area of LGBT human rights, made the comment “So, whose the wife?” In good form we answered directly that neither is the wife but that we are husband and husband. To that he said, “Someone has to be in control.” He made some other off handed, inappropriate remarks related to our work abroad.
Of course, his comments were totally inappropriate and I immediately went to his supervising officer, a Latino male in his 40s, and reported him. The supervisor was deeply apologetic and said he would handle the matter immediately and directly but that he would not have us write it up to go on record and was that OK. Yes, that was OK with us. The supervisor was obviously upset and to show he was genuinely sympathetic told us of a close relative of his who is gay.
The second occasion occurred yesterday. Jose’s doctor ordered him to the emergency room because blood tests showed his potassium to be dangerously high. Upon admittance at the ER, the attending person, a young African American woman, who called Jose by name from the waiting room to check his vital signs, looked at me strangely when I attempted to join him. (I was sitting next to Jose in the crowded waiting room when she called his name. I gathered my stuff and had to step quickly to catch up with Jose at the door of the initial examination room which was a mere 15 feet from where we sat. It didn’t occur to her that we were together, he being black, me white, both male; she had called for an “Ortiz,” so who was I.) “Who are you?” she asked me with a bit of that New York attitude tone in her voice (which is common enough). Jose answered, “He’s my husband.” I forget her reply to Jose’s introduction of me but it was pejorative at worst or a show of resigned, unhappy toleration at best.
Jose and I were both indignant on the inside, but very non-pulsed on the outside. I responded to her without hesitation, pressing the issue. “Most people congratulate us when they learn we are a married couple,” I told her politely, meaning to indicate, quit clearly, that her professionalism was lacking in her treatment of us as a gay married couple, that we should be treated like any married person and person. While attending Jose – checking his blood pressure – , she answered me: “To each his own.” To that I said, “You wouldn’t say that to a heterosexual married couple.” The conversation was over. She made no further comment; she would not apologize nor amend in any way. Her disrespect of our marriage would not be addressed, not by her. There was some moral, religious, cultural line that she would not cross. Whatever caregiver there was in her that qualified her for the ER, it did not have to include showing respect for same-sex couples.
She finished taking Jose’s vital signs and a second woman, an older white woman, entered and sat at a desk in the same room and asked Jose to describe his symptoms. The African American woman answered a phone call and, to her coworker who was taking down Jose’s symptoms, remarked loud enough for all to hear that the neighborhood kids where asking for another overnight at her home, that they spent all their time at her place, they had so much fun there. She stood next to me, talking on the phone. I noted her name on her ID badge. I typed it into my cell phone.
From this initial room we were taken to the ER room. “Not so busy today,” the supervising nurse would later remark. It appeared plenty busy to us. This is the Bronx. A not so busy day is when every bed and chair is filled. We were shown where to sit to wait. Immediately I was In my own thoughts: I need to write a letter tomorrow addressing the inappropriate way we were spoken to; but no, that’s too time consuming; I know, I need to address it now. After reading over the remarks of the offensive conversation which I had written to a note pad on my cell phone, I walked to a central desk area in the ER over which hung the sign “Registration” and I asked if I could speak to a supervisor, that I needed to complain, that we were improperly spoken to as a gay married couple.
I cited the remark that was offensive: To each his own I told the personnel who had said she could call for the supervisor. Having heard to each his own, there was no hesitation on her part. I could sense her own indignation by the way in which she urgently handled my request to speak with someone. It was as though we were on life support for equal rights, human dignity. She immediately called the supervisor who appeared in seconds.
As I registered my complaint with the supervisor, a white attentive woman in her middle years, I was genuinely kind in my remarks regarding the African American woman. I told the supervisor that I was simply raising awareness; that I did not intend for any report of complaint to be placed in the woman’s file; that perhaps the way to handle it is through staff meetings in general discussion. No, the supervisor told me in a matter-of-fact manner, she would address the person directly and apparently now. But first she made sure Jose was attended to in the ER room; then she headed off in the direction where the offence occurred.
At the end of our stay, the woman who questioned Jose on his symptoms happened to pass Jose’s bed as she was leaving at the end of her shift. She stopped and spoke with him. She was glad to hear all was well and that he was going home soon.
In complete contrast to her co-worker, the offending woman who took Jose’s vital signs and I saw each other at a distance, alone in the halls, and the situation was sadly different. I had stepped out of the ER room through a side door into the hall ways in search of a restroom. As I continued in my direction towards her, she busied herself with the empty waiting beds that lined the hall. I passed her with her back towards me. It seemed natural enough the way she busied herself; not too awkward, though somewhat.
Her indifference, expressed by her body language, represents my parents who for fifteen years now have refused to talk, have refused to acknowledge I exist. She represents that conservative, often religious, cross-section of Americans who believe the ideals and values of our country are being so undermined, so irreversibly changed, that only an ill-fated, God-judged catastrophic ending can await this young republic on account of our collective perverse sins. Because she may believe and feel these things so very strongly, I empathize, having been an evangelical Baptist minister, and I disempower my negative feelings towards her by drawing upon my understanding of the grid through which she sees life, the grid she’s never attempted to deconstruct for her own sake. And in some sense I feel sorry for her and for her son or her nephew or niece or close associate whom she will fail to understand some future day when they tell her they are gay, and by her actions and words jeopardize a significant relationship that she treasures.
As I passed her I thought she’s a great person no doubt; she’s a mother with children at home; a mother who hosts overnights for her children and their friends. If only she knew how all that family and fun stuff is what Jose and I are essentially all about.
As Jose and I walked the mile or more from the hospital to our home, we discussed the verbal mistreatment. Jose was totally supportive of my reporting it; in the ER he commended me upon learning I had reported it. After all, he’s a guidance counselor in the Bronx public schools. He addresses this kind of inequality all the time. Bringing awareness to others is part of his job.
We talked between ourselves of our past experiences of other like situations. There was recently the American missionary in Guatemala whose mouth fell wide open when we told him we were Christian and gay; there was the hotel in Africa that refused us stay when we asked for a matrimonial bed declaring ourselves legally married. But more often than not, most people do respond with cheers and smiles. More often people are genuinely happy as if they had just been personally invited to the wedding. And when we tell them we’re 15 years together, the congratulations roll with an element of delightful surprise in their voices.
But once in a while we do meet conservatives for whom we represent all that is wrong about society morally, and they have a very difficult time masking their feelings in front of us. On this most recent occasion, this hospital personnel who admits people to the ER, with all her motherly love for her children at home and her attentiveness to their neighborhood events, she just couldn’t accept Jose and me as married. And in spite of whatever professionalism she should have mustered on our behalf, she could not. We represent something too destructive, anti-society, to treat us like other human beings who are deeply in love, deeply committed, and legally married. Little did she know that Jose had just been told to go to the ER immediately because blood tests indicated that a heart attack could be imminent.
She did her basics: she took Jose’s vital signs. She could have given more heartfelt, human care – the so called “bedside manners” that often make all the difference in the world when it comes to caregiving. When Jose introduced me as his husband, all she needed to do was welcome me as she would have any married couple. Kind of simple enough to do, and oh so professional. But instead, to each his own is not a fitting remark for any hospital staff to make. Otherwise, our ER experience was totally positive. Everyone gave us excellent care. And we did our part – we raised the awareness level of what proper treatment of all individuals should be by reporting the offensive remarks we unfortunately received as a married couple.