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Terri's legacy: the fight over Terri Schiavo showed just how vulnerable all couples are to outside interference in their private lives--especially gay and lesbian couples.

Karen Thompson couldn't help but feel deep sympathy as she watched Michael Schiavo's personal struggle over the life and death of his wife become the target of religions activists and conservative politicians. "It brought back a lot of old feelings," she says, noting her battle to care for her gravely ill partner, Sharon Kowalski. "I know what it's like to live your life in limbo day after day. I really felt for this guy, that he stuck it out this long. It's the same situation I was in, and it's a no-win situation."

Michael Schiavo's 41-year-old wife, Terri, died on March 31 after he won a seven-year battle with her parents to remove the feeding tube that had kept her alive since a heart attack left her in a persistent vegetative state 15 years ago. Because there was no living will or other legal document to prove what he said was his wife's expressed wish--not to be kept alive by a machine--it not only allowed her parents to intervene, it invited Congress and the president to pass a bill on March 21 allowing Terri Schiavo's parents to take their case to the federal courts.

The unprecedented action left many gays and lesbians feeling uneasy. It showed just how far Congress and the president are willing to go to advance an agenda reflecting a conservative conception of morality. And it was the latest chapter in a national trend of lawmaking based on religious ideologies that has blossomed in the wake of the presidential election last year. Across the country, state and national lawmakers are introducing legislation that affects the private lives of citizens--in many cases gays and lesbians. Adoption and marriage rights for gays have become targets of the same kind of religious-based lawmaking that has long been applied to abortion, drug use, and, in the case of Schiavo, the right to die. "It does not bode well for where they might next insert themselves," says Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which represented Thompson in her fight. "Certainly this Congress would not support decision-making authority for a lesbian or gay partner."

Thompson, 57, knows all about a lack of support: After Kowalski was struck by a drunk driver in 1983 and fell into a coma, Thompson was kept out of the hospital room. Because there was no legal document specifying Kowalski's wishes, her father, who did not approve of the women's relationship, secured legal guardianship and denied Thompson visitation.

Soon antigay activists and politicians were involved, and the ensuing legal battle became what has since been described as a high-water mark for gay and lesbian inequality. Kowalski came out of her coma several months later, but it took eight years and numerous unfavorable court rulings before Thompson was finally allowed to bring her partner home to Clearwater, Minn., where she continues to recover. "Our relationships aren't validated, which makes us more vulnerable," Thompson says. "But at the same time, here's this case that shows even when you are married you need to have the right papers."

Indeed, the Schiavo case was a wake-up call. Congress routinely passes "private bills" like the one affecting Terri Schiavo, says gay U.S. representative Barney Frank, who spoke out against the bill on the House floor. "But until now, they have all had to do with benefits, such as tax breaks for corporations or immigrant status," he says. "For Congress to pass a law intervening in a particular [right-to-die] case is unprecedented." Frank argued that the bill was unconstitutional because it interfered with the judiciary. But no judge issued a ruling in favor of Schiavo's parents, so the law's constitutionality wasn't resolved.

"It's what I like to call the invasion of the busybodies," says Pat Logue, senior counsel for Lambda Legal and a lead attorney on the team that won the landmark Lawrence v. Texas decision striking down sodomy laws. "There's this 'holier than thou' notion that they should tell people how to run their lives."

The busybodies clearly failed in the Schiavo case. Polls have shown overwhelming public rebuke for Congress's intrusion into private family matters, and the president's approval rating dropped to its lowest ever immediately after he signed the Schiavo bill. "I think this is potentially the biggest backlash against the religious right we have ever seen," says Barry Lynn, president of the civil rights group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "The next time they come knocking, they're going to be met with more skepticism by Congress and by the American people. And I think gays and lesbians will find a more favorable political climate."

Should gays and lesbians ever become the target of the type of congressional action taken in the Schiavo case, gay rights leaders will be there to rekindle that public sentiment, says Joe Solmonese, head of the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. "What they did clearly crossed the line with the American people," he says. "There has been a precedent set in this case. People are paying attention."

Some political pundits were quick to point out that the very lawmakers who seek to protect the "sanctity of marriage" by denying it to gay people were the ones who so quickly trampled on Michael Schiavo's marriage by trying to take his rights away. But while Florida's marriage law allowed Schiavo to call the shots, in most cases the situation really has little to do with marriage, says Thompson. "There is no one who automatically has the right to make decisions for another person," she says. "We have to have our paperwork in order."

Ready to write your own living will and durable power of attorney? End online resources to guide you through the legal landscape by clicking on LINKS at www.advocate.com.

RELATED ARTICLE: Last kiss: for one couple, documents made all the difference.

As dramatically illustrated by the story of Karen Thompson, who was denied access to her gravely ill partner, unless there is a specific document making clear a person's intent, in health crises gay men and lesbians are at the mercy of a partners family members, who may be virtual strangers, says Kate Kendell of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. 'They may have been estranged for years," she says. "But nevertheless they retain the legal authority to make fundamental decisions." A living will can suffice, she says, but a durable power of attorney is also often necessary, making it clear to parents and potentially homophobic hospital staff that a gay or lesbian person has the right to be at their partner's bedside and to make medical decisions.

That was true for David Williams, 58, of Louisville, Ky., whose partner of years, Norman Nichols, died of AIDS complications in January 1995 at age 38. Right before his death Nichols was hospitalized, and doctors said the end was near. Nichols's parents, who did not approve of the men's relationship, wanted to hook him up to a machine to prolong his life, but he had drawn up a durable power of attorney and a living will. "If it hadn't been for that piece of paper, I would have been out of luck," Williams says. "Norman's morn didn't want to let him go. But in the end they respected my rights. We had to carry out his expressed wish."

Williams feels sympathy for the parents of Terri Schiavo, who died 13 days after the March 18 removal of her feeding tube. It is difficult to let go, he says, but you have to face the facts. That was something he and his partner had already done; they had even selected a tombstone together. "It has some stained glass in it with a flame shooting up with the colors of the rainbow," he says. "Every morning when the sun comes up, the rainbow shines over his plot."--J.C.
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Author:Caldwell, John
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 10, 2005
Words:1310
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