October 20, 2011 at 6:23 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Lesbian activist awarded Presidential Citizens Medal

Janice Langbehn (left) and President Obama (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A lesbian activist who helped secure hospital visitation rights for gay couples across the country on Thursday received the nation’s second-highest civilian honor.

Janice Langbehn, who was unable to visit her partner in 2007 before she died in a Florida hospital, was among 13 recipients of the 2011 Presidential Citizens Medal. During a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President Obama conferred the medals to each of the recipients.

During his remarks, Obama paid special attention to award recipients who took action after their families endured hardship. For Langbehn, the trial was being separated from her partner of 18 years, Lisa Pond, as she lay dying in the hospital after suffering from a brian aneurysm.

“As a father and husband, I can’t begin to imagine the grief that they must have felt in that moment — their anger and their sense that the world was not fair,” Obama said. “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.”

Obama conferred the award to Langbehn, a lesbian who hails from Lacey, Wash., after a military aide standing the near the stage read a description of her accomplishments.

“Janice Langbehn transformed her own profound loss into a resounding call for compassion and equality,” the aide said. “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.”

Since Pond’s death, Langbehn has spoken with the press and organizations about being denied the ability to visit her partner in the hospital. Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit on her behalf against the facility, Jackson Memorial Hospital, which was unsuccessful. However, the hospital later agreed to change its policy on its own accord.

Langbehn is credited with being the figure that inspired President Obama to issue a memorandum last year directing hospitals receiving of Medicare and Medicaid funds — or virtually all hospitals — to allow patients to designate whomever they choose to visit them in the hospital, including a same-sex partner.

Her story inspired a 2009 article in the New York Times that reportedly was read by then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and shown to Obama. After reading the article, Obama directed Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to make the change on hospital visitation policy.

Among the 150 attendees at the ceremony were Langbehn’s brother Wallace “Skip” Langbehn; her sister Marilyn Langbehn, Human Rights Campaign Family Project Deputy Director Tom Sullivan; Beth Littrell, a staff attorney in the Southern Regional Office of Lambda Legal; and Cindi Creager, communications director of the LGBT Community Center in New York.

The Presidential Citizens Medal is given to Americans who perform “exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens.” This year, the 13 awardees were chosen from a pool of nearly 6,000 public nominations received by the White House.

The civilian honor is second only only to the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Other honorees include civil rights activists Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height.

In a statement, Langbehn called receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal “a great honor.”

“It is my hope that my family’s loss, this medal, and the attention it brings to the discrimination our families have faced during the most difficult moments, will help ease suffering and ensure that no family has to go through what my family went through,” she said.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, commended Langbehn in a statement for her work and said her action secure one of the most fundamental needs for gay families.

“Janice Langbehn turned her family’s healthcare horror story into action and has worked hard to make sure other LGBT Americans aren’t denied the right to be at an ailing loved one’s bedside,” Solmonese said. “Her story inspired our President to address one of our community’s most critical needs, and for that she has earned the nation’s second-highest civilian honor.”

Prior to the ceremony, Langbehn had an interview with the Washington Blade on the White House grounds. A transcript of the interview follows:

Washington Blade: Can you tell me about how you heard the news that you got this medal and what your reaction was at the time?

Janice Langbehn: It was actually found out on what would have been Lisa’s and my 20th anniversary of our holy union. And I was quite shocked because I had no idea I was even nominated for this prestigious honor. It also again reaffirms that all my speaking out over these last four-and-a-half years is important, was important and continues to be important for equality for all of us. We’re no longer second class citizens. If I can get the Presidential Citizens Medal, we all need to be first-class citizens in this country.

Blade: Now that you’re on the White House grounds, can you tell me where your thoughts are at this time?

Langbehn: I’m really nervous obviously for what’s to come. And also, I hope I’m worthy of such a high honor from the country.

Blade: Can you talk to me a little bit about what you’ve done since the death of your spouse and how it’s led to the hospital visitation rights memo?

Langbehn: It was about three months after Lisa died in ’07 that I was asked to speak at our local Pride event in Olympia, Wash. And I connected with GLAAD, who helped me figure out how to put the message together. And them, once the words came out it was so natural after that that what happened to our family was so wrong.

Lisa died completely alone. For eight hours, our children and myself were barred from her bedside for no other reason than we were gay. And so, she died completely alone, and no one should have to die alone in this country if they have family.

And I have said it since the beginning, I have felt like a failure to Lisa because our vows were in sickness and health and I wasn’t there the time she most needed me, and so speaking out was somewhat of a way to get it out the community that this happens. We need our paperwork, but this also needs to change. And that’s what President Obama, along with Secretary Sebelius was able to do, and I’m so grateful for that.

Blade: Do you think the hospital visitation rights memo that President Obama issued — did that sufficiently address the issue, or is more work needed?

Langbehn: I think it did address the issue of hospital visitation, without a doubt, and then, the follow up memo of how to implement it in hospitals that came out this last August absolutely tells hospitals, “A, B, C, D, make sure this is in your patients’ bill of rights, etc., and make sure your staff are culturally competent on LGBT issues.”

I think the one area that’s still is kind of a little grey is if the patient comes in incapacitated and the documents aren’t there ahead of time — like ours were — though it didn’t help us. So, there’s still work to do and Secretary Sebelius admits that there’s still plenty of work to do. But this is a great first step and its Lisa’s legacy.

Blade: Is there anything more you’d like to see from President Obama? What’s the next thing you’d like to see from President Obama on the issues of LGBT rights?

Langbehn: Well, he’s got to get rid of DOMA. DOMA has to go and ENDA needs to come in. I mean, I can’t say it any more bluntly than that. The more patchwork of rights that we have across the country, the more of a problem it’s going to be, so DOMA has to go, and it’s as simple as that.

Blade: Thank you so much, Ms. Langbehn. I really appreciate it.

Watch the video here:

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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