22nd Annual GLAAD Media Awards
Good evening, I am Janice Langbehn. In trying to prepare for tonight’s speech and express how the importance of equality is; I am saddened to think the only reason I am up here is because my partner died. Some of you may have heard our story. In February 2007, my partner, Lisa Pond, and I arrived in Miami, Florida with three of our adopted children to realize a family dream – a weeklong vacation on R-Family Cruises. We did not anticipate the unimaginable homophobia and inhumane treatment we would be faced with just a few hours later.
While I unpacked in our cabin, Lisa, my partner of 18 years took our kids Danielle, David and Katie up to the top deck to play basketball. Just a short time later the kids were banged on the stateroom door saying, “Mommy was hurt!” I opened the door, and took one look at Lisa and knew the situation was very serious. I knew that my life partner was gravely ill. Thousands of miles from home we had no choice but to seek medical help in an unfamiliar city.
After local medics arrived, we hurried off the ship to the closest hospital in Miami, Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital. I headed to the waiting room to do admission papers and begin the waiting. When I offered to fill out Lisa’s admitting forms, I was told they didn’t want my information. A short while later a social worker appeared to inform me that I was – and I quote – “in an anti-gay city and state.” He explained that this meant that I would not be allowed to see Lisa or make decisions about her care without a Health Care Proxy. Within 20 minutes I had contacted close friends in Olympia, WA who raced to our house, found all our legal documents including our Durable Power of Attorney, Living Wills and Advance Directives and faxed them to the hospital.
Sitting alone with our luggage, our children and my thoughts, I watched numbly as other families were invited back into the trauma center to visit with their loved ones. I was still waiting to hear what was happening with Lisa, realizing as the time passed that I was not being allowed to see her and if the social worker’s words were any indication, it was because we were gay.
A short while later, two surgeons appeared and explained the bleed in Lisa’s brain had caused massive brain damage and was not survivable. After given seconds to digest that my partner was dying, I asked in desperation to see her. The doctors promised that I would be brought to see Lisa. Yet I was still waiting when a hospital chaplain appeared. I politely requested a Catholic Priest be brought in to administer Lisa’s Last Rites. The chaplain offered to pray with me, and I remember staring at her wondering – what did she think I had been doing for the last several hours but praying? I knew the children needed to see Lisa and say goodbye, and I used every tactic I could think of to be with her, yet four hours after they stopped life-saving measures we still sat in that small waiting room. I showed hospital staff our children’s birth certificates with Lisa’s name on them and was told they were “too young to visit.” I thought to myself “how old do you need to be to say goodbye to your mother”? In those hours of waiting and trying to calm our children, explaining to them that their “other” mom was dying and would go to Heaven, I felt like a failure.
Lisa was declared brain dead the following day at 10:45am. As she wished, her organs were donated, saving four lives.
Over the ensuing four months, I contacted the hospital asking for an apology and complained about the way they treated our family. It fell on deaf ears. When asked to speak at my town’s pride event, I reached out to GLAAD for help and finally found someone to listen to me. Cindi Creager from GLAAD empowered me to tell my story and to tell it without shame or apologizing for Lisa and my eighteen years together.
With the help of Lambda Legal, I filed a federal suit against the hospital and those who barred the children and me from Lisa’s side and forced her to die alone. GLAAD brought me here to New York City so I could receive media training so I could respond to all the questions such as “why didn’t you say you were sisters” or “why didn’t you kick down the door.” GLAAD then worked with Lambda to get our story out there – from CNN, the Advocate, Newsweek to LGBT News show ‘In The Life’. In 2008, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts – a nominee tonight – wrote a column entitled “Joe or Janice.” In 2008 he received the GLAAD award for best syndicated columnist. Then in 2009, GLAAD got Tara Parker Pope – a writer for the New York Times – to profiled our family in the Sunday Times. That article too received the GLAAD award for outstanding newspaper article.
Though, we lost the lawsuit , it was that New York Times article that was brought to President Obama which led to the call that changed hospital visitation rights in this country. On April 15, 2010, President Obama called me from Air Force One to apologize for how our family was treated at the Miami Hospital. He went on to say he ordered The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to change nation-wide rules to allow for same sex visitation just as they do for blood relatives. This rule change went into effect this year on January 18th.
So you can see from our tragedy, change occurred. However, none of this would have been possible without GLAAD. It is you here tonight and the thousands of other members who support GLAAD and their mission of sharing stories in the media of LGBT persons and families that empowered President Obama to make this courageous change once he had been made aware of the injustice to our family.
If you remember nothing else from tonight, I am asking you to please support GLAAD in its endeavors, for without GLAAD I would not have received the media attention and training that I so needed while in deep grief. Without GLAAD, our family and Lisa’s legacy would have been a one-time article in my local paper, instead of creating national change so all LGBT individuals will not die alone while their partner and children are behind locked doors.