When President Barack Obama on Friday signed a memorandum that, in part, granted visitation rights and the power to make medical decisions to the same-sex partners of hospitalized homosexuals, the reactions were unsurprising. There were those who lauded the decision, and those who decried it. Those on both sides by and large view this issue with a political perspective. But when you pause for a moment and view this decision as a simple act of empowering the compassionate, it becomes clear that politics or homosexuality or a gay agenda have nothing to do with this. Sort of.
The Mahavagga has a beautiful lesson by the Buddha regarding tending to the sick. In the Kucchivikara-vatthu, the Buddha admonishes a group of monks who failed to tend to a monk stricken with dysentery. The indifference by the others shown toward this ill monk is shocking. When the Buddha asks the monk why no one attends to his needs, the monk replies, “I don’t do anything for the monks, lord, which is why they don’t attend to me.”
Just 20 years ago, hundreds of thousands of gay men were dying from AIDS, many in obscurity. What I mean by obscurity is when an obituary appeared in a local paper, the cause of death was frequently coded: he died from a long illness, was the most common. Sometimes, a specific cause of death was given, such as toxoplasmosis or PCP – pneumocystis pneumonia – but these illnesses among humans are so rare and unknown that only other gays would understand what had happened. And because these obituaries were written by family members, usually parents, there was seldom any mention of a boyfriend or partner. If he were mentioned, it was again obliquely: survived by a long-time friend.
The final insult was often the burial. It was not uncommon for committed partners to purchase cemetery plots together, but there was no guarantee that this would be honored by any surviving family. I remember one story in particular in which the family completely cut off their son’s partner following the son’s death. They wanted to bury their son in a family plot that would eventually exclude the surviving partner. The surviving partner took the matter to court to show that they had purchased plots together, but the judge ruled in favor of the family: the surviving partner had no claim to assert, no legal standing to challenge the wishes of “the family.”
That was then, and as the cliché goes, this is now. In the mid-1990s, protease inhibitors hit the market, dramatically extending the lives of HIV positive individuals, even if they were already diagnosed with AIDS. A savior had come forward for us and his name was David Ho. A good friend of mine was such a case. His T-cell count had dropped to near zero, in part because he refused to take AZT, the treatment widely used at the time. As my friend said to me, “All my friends took AZT, and now they’re all dead.” It turned out to be a good decision, because when protease inhibitors became available, my friend got started on the regimen, and now roughly 30 years after being infected, he remains alive.
Nothing, however, occurs in a vacuum. As HIV-infected gay men started to live longer and healthier, the death rates dropped, and so did interest in keeping AIDS on the front page. The drugs also gave families with gay sons more time to accept this thing called homosexuality. Visiting gymnasiums at colleges and high schools to see the Names Project quilt suddenly seemed quaint rather than important. Now the horror is far away in a place called Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.
But we still die, just like everyone else. And while it may not have come for the hundreds of thousands that died alone before, or who died separated from the one they really loved, it has finally come, the awareness that no matter who you are, when you are sick and about to die, there shouldn’t be anyone other than you deciding who gets to be by your side.
It’s not a gay thing. It’s not a political thing. It is simple decency. It is compassion. And it’s about time.
I'm a content director for a television company, guiding content on Web sites. I'm an avid listener of Frank Zappa and a practicing Buddhist who follows the Theravada vehicle. I'm an insatiable traveler who calls Chicago home.