Friday, August 19, 2011

The Outrage That Wasn't... But Was.

The horrible collapse of the stage at the Indiana State Fair last week generated more than enough grief for more than enough people. Dozens were injured, and there were five fatalities. The thought that the fates would have determined that one woman’s suffering still wasn’t enough captured the imagination: the generally reliable Bil Browning posted on the site that Indiana authorities refused to release the body of victim Christina Santiago (pictured) to her legal-in-Illinois-but-not-in-Indiana domestic partner Alisha Brennon, who was herself seriously injured in the accident. [N.B., one site lists Ms. Brennon as Ms. Santiago’s “fiancée.”]

Browning got the story wrong. To his credit, he pulled it as soon as it became clear that such even might be the case, and he issued what I read as a comprehensive and sincere apology when the facts became clearer, but the story had already gone viral, e.g., a post by Dan Savage which includes this little mini-rant:
This is what DOMA is designed to do. DOMA does nothing to strengthen traditional marriages. It doesn't prevent straight couples from divorcing or make straight couples any more likely to take responsibility for their children. The federal DOMA and all the mini-DOMAs enacted by the states only serve to torment and persecute gay people at the most trying moments of their lives: when a partner is ill, when a child is sick, when a partner dies. And people who claim to be Christians will howl the loudest if DOMA is repealed.
Savage, too, corrected the record after it became clear that Ms. Brennon, still hospitalized, was not being denied access to her partner’s remains.

The story quickly shifted to trying to figure out how the mistake happened: Browning tells the tale from his perspective, while a commenter on a post on the Facebook page of Amigas Latinas, an organization for Hispanic LGBTQ women, for which Ms. Santiago was director of programming, feared that she (the commenter) had inadvertently spawned the false report:
In a Spanish-language interview yesterday I was asked how Amigas was/had responded, and I said one of our immediate concerns-bc this happened in Indiana- was to make sure that AB's wishes would be respected and to be a support or advocate if they weren't. Worried that my Spanish language skills - kind of at 80%- made it sound like this WAS happening (instead of HAD BEEN an initial concern/question).
Luckily, however, whatever the reason for the false report, it was, indeed, a false report, and Ms. Santiago’s remains will be venerated and disposed of in accordance with Ms. Brennon’s wishes.

So all is well, right? Not really.

All we need to do is to read the article on the WILL site to see that there’s a potentially very dark cloud surrounding this silver lining:
“The wife (Brennon) never contacted us to claim the body so she was never denied that opportunity,” said Alfarea Ballew, chief deputy coroner of the Marion County Coroner’s Office. “The wife is still hospitalized. We’re working with the friends and aunt (of Santiago) to release the body. I’ve never talked to anybody denying the wife that opportunity.”

In an interview with Chicago Public Media on Tuesday afternoon, Ballew said the office has never encountered a situation involving the spouse claiming a body of a same-sex loved one.

“Still,” Ballew said, “I’m surprised it’s being put out that way. That’s not how we would address that kind of issue. We release the body to the next of kin. Christina’s aunt was listed as the next of kin. The aunt signed off on paperwork and everything is moving forward with the wife.”
Notice in particular that matter-of-fact, slightly puzzled, tone in the last paragraph. Translation: Ms. Brennon will be involved in the disposition of Ms. Santiago’s remains because, and only because, Ms. Santiago’s aunt—the next of kin—allows her to be. And what if there had been no aunt? Or if the aunt had refused to honor the wishes of Ms. Brennon?

Ultimately, it matters little what the precise details were of the relationship between the two women, or of the ultimate resolution of the perhaps manufactured mini-crisis of how and to whom Ms. Santiago’s body should be released. The point is this: the two lesbian women could have been married per se according to the laws of several states, and Indiana would still have released the remains only to the aunt as “next of kin.” Luckily, the aunt is a mensch, but such is not always the case. I personally witnessed a dear friend be denied the opportunity even to attend the “private family funeral” of his partner of over a quarter century. (The family did graciously allow him to pay his partner’s medical bills, however. Seriously, I would cheerfully strangle these bastards with their own intestines, which I would obtain by reaching down their throats.)

And so we’re back to Savage’s twin observations: on the one hand, “it didn’t happen this time”; on the other, this is indeed precisely what DOMA was intended to do. That Indiana didn’t turn down a partner’s request for her loved one’s remains may be true, but it is true only because they weren’t asked. The coroner is indignant because someone alleges that she “[denied] the opportunity” to Ms. Santiago’s wife. She didn’t. She would have, had she been asked, but that’s a different matter, of course.

This case has a happy ending, to the extent that any story about a life cut short far too early can do so, in that we can safely presume that Ms. Santiago’s friends and loved ones will have an appropriate outlet through which to celebrate her life and mourn her death. But we’re also reminded that such a result was precipitated not by laws, codes of ethical conduct, or a culture of respect and dignity. Rather, it stemmed from the grace of a single woman, who could just as easily—legally and quite possibly (from her perspective, at least) ethically—have decided otherwise.

The adage that no one is free until we all are may be trite. It’s also as resonant today as ever.

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