What Straight Privilege Looks Like: Elderly Gay Couple Separated, Forced Into Nursing Homes, and Robbed By the County of Sonoma

This weekend, I found out about a really horrific legal case through the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Clay and Harold, a gay couple living in Sonoma County, California, were getting on in years and took a number of legal steps to safeguard their relationship. All of the steps which people who want to deny marriage rights say are ‘enough’ to provide queer couples with access to the same legal protections straight people enjoy with or without marriage. Only Harold had a fall, and it set off a series of events which is so awful that it would defy belief, except that these events happen to queer couples on a regular basis.

When Harold fell at age 88, he ended up being hospitalized. This is a not uncommon situation for older adults. Clay, Harold’s partner, should have been consulted and should have been able to see Harold in the hospital. Except that didn’t happen. Clay was not only not consulted about Harold’s care, he was barred from visiting him in the hospital. Because the two men, in a 20 year relationship with each other, were ‘roommates’ in the eyes of the County, which tried to give itself power of attorney to make decisions about Harold under the argument that he had ‘no family.’

Not only that, but Clay, who was in good health, was moved to a nursing home against his will. The forcible incarceration (and this is what placement in an institution against your will is) of older adults of all sexual orientations is an ongoing problem in this society and it is awful. In this case, it was used to not only deprive Clay of his autonomy, but also to separate him from Harold; the two were not placed in the same facility.

Placing Clay in a nursing home allowed the County to auction off the men’s possessions and terminate their lease. Even assuming that the men were ‘roommates,’ the County overstepped its boundaries here by selling off their belongings without taking steps to determine which of the men owned what. The only term I can think of to describe this is ‘robbery.’ Indeed, the County’s decision seems to suggest that it thought the men owned property in common, almost as though they were in a long term relationship with each other.

Harold died three months later. Clay was left with virtually nothing; not only were his physical memories of his relationship scattered to the winds, but so was all of his property. Clay was finally liberated from the nursing home and a suit is being filed. I sincerely hope that suit is won and that the result is a change in policy which includes the extension of basic respect and rights to queer couples dealing with the County and with hospitals. And it’s worth noting that Sonoma County is one of California’s more progressive Counties, one which is described as queer-friendly.

It’s too late for Clay and Harold.

This heartbreaking situation did not need to happen. Had this couple been heterosexual, even unmarried, this would not have happened.

This is what straight privilege looks like. Straight privilege is being 77 and knowing that if your 88 year old partner falls and is hospitalized, that you will have a role in your partner’s care. You will be consulted if your partner is not able to make decisions. You will be allowed to visit your partner in the hospital. Your belongings and memories will not be sold by County authorities. You can live absolutely secure in the knowledge that no matter what your marriage status is, if you have been together for 20 years, you will be treated as your partner’s family.

Harold ‘had no family,’ oh, except for his partner of 20 years. Harold died alone because of the actions of bigoted busybodies who refused to acknowledge his relationship. Clay was held against his will in a nursing home while his partner was dying and his possessions were being sold off. These men were forcibly kept apart. They were kept apart for no reason whatsoever, other than that they were gay, and someone clearly did not approve of this.

Harold and Clay did everything by the book. They got all of the advance directives and paperwork squared away to prevent this very situation from happening. Unmarried heterosexual couples certainly wouldn’t think to take the steps that these men took. They would assume that they would be able to access their partners and make decisions on their behalf in the event of a medical emergency.

This is not about marriage equality; I don’t know if the men wanted to get married or not. This is about basic human rights. People in a long term relationship with each other should not have to exercise extreme legal measures which are supposed to ensure access in the event of an emergency, only to find that those measures are worthless. And people should not have to get married if they don’t want to simply to secure the ability to make decisions for each other in emergencies. This is a right which should be extended to all people.

This is also an issue of elder rights. Harold and Clay were abused not only because they were gay, but because they were older adults. Given that the population of the United States is living longer and rapidly aging, this case is has implications for older adults which I can only describe as chilling. The disability rights implications are clear here as well; people with disabilities are forcibly institutionalised on a regular basis.

The Press Democrat, which is the major paper in Sonoma County, has not reported on this case at all. I checked the headlines on Sunday, when I read about this case for the first time, and the feature piece was about a heterosexual couple. The lede? ‘With devoted girlfriend by his side, Healdsburg High grad who was left a quadriplegic in a river diving accident begins building a new¬†life.’