Obama's Visitation Rights Order: A Turning Point on Gay Rights?

The White House caught pretty much everyone off guard last night with an executive order intended to ensure visitation rights for gay couples in hospitals. The order asks Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, to allow people both to visit their partners and make medical decisions for them. Hospitals that don't comply stand to lose federal funding. Wrote Obama:

There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital. In these hours of need and moments of pain and anxiety, all of us would hope to have a hand to hold, a shoulder on which to lean—a loved one to be there for us, as we would be there for them. [Read the memo here.]

Some states already have laws providing for visitation, but this will extend rights nationwide, addressing a common problem caused by the lack of legal sanction for gay couples in most states. Obama was apparently inspired by the story of Janice Langbehn, which was detailed in The New York Times last year. The Washington woman was barred from the deathbed of her partner of 18-years when the woman was struck with a brain aneuryism during a Florida vacation. Despite having power of attorney, Langbehn—and the couple's four children—weren't allowed in her room. Obama called Langbehn following the issuance of the order last night.

Despite enjoying strong support from the LGBT community during the presidential election, Obama has since drawn the ire of activists for gay issues. They've been disappointed by slow progress on repealing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy—to say nothing of inaction on issues like gay marriage on the national level. (In our 20/10 project, NEWSWEEK predicted Obama wouldn't do anything on gay rights this year—a forecast that's already been proven wrong.)

So will this order be enough to win them back? The Human Rights Campaign, a major gay-rights group that worked with the White House on the order, celebrated the decision last night. Gay bloggers have greeted it with somewhat more measured applause. Towleroad says it's a step in the right direction. Joe. My. God. wonders how gay couples will prove their relationships in states where unions or marriages aren't recognized, and he worries that the order knocks one of the legs out from the argument for marriage equality (why rush gay marriage if you already get some married rights?). Pam's House Blend has a great roundup of reactions from around the gay community.

Andrew Sullivan, one of the most outspoken commentators on gay issues, has some of the same mixed feelings. You can't dislike the change, he writes. However,

the dynamic leaves me queasy. There is something about the well-meaning liberal mind that is often admirably eager to help the needy, but balks at offering the recipients what we really want: simple equality. The latest move—giving Obama an easy win, the gay lobby a role in mediating the transaction—perpetuates the victimology that sustains the Democrats and their interest groups.

For many gay Americans, the proof may come in the actual guidelines HHS issues and how they play out in practice. The guidelines won't apply just to gay couples—they also extend protections to widows and widowers, as well as the single. In his memo, Obama singled out members of religious orders who have been unable to designate someone other than a blood relative to make decisions for them.

One more loose end: the feds will enforce the order by making it mandatory for any hospitals that receive funding through Medicare and Medicaid. That made one blogger worry that Catholic hospitals might just stop accepting Medicare and Medicaid. It wouldn't be without precedent: After Washington, D.C., legalized same-sex marriage last month, Catholic groups in the city slashed spousal benefits rather than extend them to same-sex couples, a move the groups said would have violated their faith.