Section One

April 8, 2005

Volume 33,
Issue 14

Sat, Feb 27, 2016


Lesbian Notions by Paula Martinac
There’s something very queer about the story of Terri Schiavo. I don’t mean “queer” as in odd or strange, but as in familiar to Gay people. The personal drama of the Schiavos is something many Lesbians and Gay men have worried about and taken precautions against in order to avoid unwanted interference in their relationships.

Relatively few Americans - something like 15 percent - currently have a living will in place and have designated a medical power of attorney, or health-care proxy. My guess (and hope) is that a large number of those who have these important documents on hand are Lesbians or Gay men, who, in lieu of legal marriage, have a clear need for them.

Indeed, the Schiavos’ tragedy sent me rushing to our fireproof lockbox to double-check that the legal papers my partner and I had drawn up years ago - at the moment we could finally afford them - included both living wills and powers of attorney. And there they were, prepared by a smart and thorough Lesbian attorney who counseled us on how to protect our “illegal” relationship. In recommending that we draft more than just our wills, our lawyer had two things in mind: Sharon Kowalski and AIDS.

Some of my readers have probably forgotten - or maybe never even heard - Kowalski’s name, but her story loomed large for our community in the mid-1980s. Disabled when her car was struck by a drunk driver, Kowalski was placed in a nursing home by her Gay-phobic father, who cruelly denied her lover, Karen Thompson, the right to visit her. Even though Kowalski typed out her wish that she be cared for in her own home by Thompson, the courts sided with her family of origin. It took three years for Thompson to win paltry visitation rights, and an additional three to finally gain legal guardianship of her partner and bring her home. The couple’s drama became a cause celebre in our community and set many Lesbian and Gay attorneys on the path of protecting our relationships.

At the same time that Kowalski’s story was being played out in the courts, AIDS was ravaging our community. A lot of Gay men found themselves in situations similar to Thompson’s, where they were denied access to their partners in the hospital or not permitted to make critical health-care decisions for them. Straight parents jumped in to make medical and legal judgments that violated their Gay offspring’s wishes - and often reduced longtime partners to strangers. By the early 1990s, then, the ritual of “getting your paperwork done” had become standard in our community.

Now Terri Schiavo’s story has likewise sent straight Americans to their lawyers’ offices - or, for those who can’t afford attorneys’ fees, to Staples or Office Depot to purchase legal software. In fact, all the major public-opinion polls have established that most Americans - and, amazingly, the numbers cut across party lines - think Michael Schiavo is correct to implement what he understands to be his wife’s wishes, and further believe that the state should stay out of their business.

The fact is, many heterosexual couples have probably never considered themselves vulnerable in this way. After all, marriage is supposed to cover a couple’s legal bases. But the Schiavos’ case has demonstrated that, given human inconsistency and unpredictability, parents who were once approving or tolerant of an adult child’s spouse can turn on a dime when critical health matters are concerned.

In a sad yet meaningful way, then, one couple’s tragic story has presented all Americans with a chance to reflect on what we would want if, like Terri Schiavo, doctors determined we were beyond hope of recovery. And in addition, the story gives Lesbians and Gay men an opening to talk to family members - parents, in particular - about a difficult topic: our own desires about life-and-death medical decisions, and our concerns that our relationships be honored.

If you already have a living will and medical power of attorney, good for you - now would be a perfect time to take those papers out of the lockbox and discuss them with your family of origin. Unless they’re completely unreasonable or religious fundamentalists (or both), most parents would probably honor their adult children’s wishes, even if they don’t personally agree with them.

And if you don’t have this vital paperwork yet, it’s definitely time to get it. Same-sex couples are still more vulnerable than straight married couples in these matters, by virtue of the fact that our relationships aren’t legally recognized in most states. But even if you’re not partnered, you should consider whom you want to make vital decisions (a sibling, close friend, or ex-lover, maybe, if not a parent) when you can no longer make them yourself.t

Paula Martinac is a playwright, novelist, author of nonfiction books, and editor in chief of Q Syndicate. She can be reached care of this publication or at

Leslie Robinson

Madelyn Arnold