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Janice Langbehn Speaks at the 22nd GLAAD Media Awards.
On October 20, 2011, President Obama presented 13 individuals the Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation's second-highest civilian honor. Among the recipients was Janice Langbehn, a lesbian activist who was selected for the honor in recognition of "her efforts to ensure all Americans are treated equally."
The Citizens Medal was established in 1969 to salute "American citizens who have performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens," according to a White House press release.
Langbehn was forced into activism in 2007 when her partner Lisa Pond collapsed in Miami where the Olympia, Washington couple and their two children were planning to board a holiday cruise ship. Pond was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital. When Langbehn arrived, she was told by a hospital worker that she was in "an anti-gay city and state" and was denied access to Pond.
Within an hour, Langbehn had a power of attorney faxed to the hospital, but she and her children were nevertheless still denied access for eight hours. Pond slipped into a coma from a brain aneurysm and died without her partner of 18 years or her children by her side.
With the aid of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, in 2008 Langbehn sued the hospital. However, the suit was dismissed by a federal district judge who ruled that no law compelled hospitals to recognize the rights of same-sex partners to visit their loved ones in a hospital.
Because of the publicity generated by the injustice and the lawsuit, a national debate ensued about the right of same-sex partners to visit each other in the hospital and about the obligation of hospitals to recognize powers of attorney and living wills.
In April 2010, President Obama issued a presidential memo directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to take steps to address hospital visitation and other health care issues affecting glbtq families. President Obama then called Langbehn from Air Force One to tell her about the memo and express his sympathy for how she and her family were treated by Jackson Memorial Hospital.
On January 18, 2011, rules prohibiting sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in hospital visitation at hospitals that receive Medicaid or Medicare went into effect.
Upon learning that Langbehn had been chosen to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal, Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, issued the following statement: "We're proud that Janice will receive the Presidential Citizens Medal from the White House in recognition of her tireless advocacy beginning in a Florida hospital more than three years ago. Because Janice boldly told her story, President Obama heard about her and issued the directive last year that led to the new federal rules that will protect same-sex couples and their families across the country."
On the day she was notified of the award, Langbehn issued this statment: "It is such an amazing honor to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal and it is serendipitous that I got the news [on] what would have been the 20th anniversary of my holy union with Lisa. Now that the country has rules in place to make sure that no family ever has to experience the nightmare that my family has gone through, this award is the first step in making sure that LGBT families are not treated as second-class citizens."
At the ceremony on October 20, President Obama lauded Langbehn for her generosity in translating her profound loss into a means of helping others: "As a father and husband, I can't begin to imagine the grief that [Langbehn and her children] must have felt in that moment--their anger and their sense that the world was not fair. But they refused to let that anger define them. They each became, in Janice's words, an 'accidental activist.' And thanks to their work, there are parents and partners who will never have to go through what they went through."
When President Obama presented the Citizens Medal to Langbehn, a military aide read the following citation: "Janice Langbehn transformed her own profound loss into a resounding call for compassion and equality. When the woman she loved, Lisa Pond, suddenly suffered a brain aneurysm, Janice and her children were denied the right to stand beside her in her final moments. Determined to spare others from similar injustice, Janice spoke out and helped ensure that same-sex couples can support and comfort each other through some of life's toughest trials. The United States honors Janice Langbehn for advancing America's promise of equality for all."
Here is Langbehn's story in her own words: