When on July 17 Paul Zilber went to visit his fiance at Saint Barnabas Behavioral Health Center, in Toms River, New Jersey, his focus was of course on his boyfriend’s well-being. What Paul says he experienced however, was unlawful anti-gay discrimination at the hands of the center’s nursing staff.
Paul’s partner was receiving treatment at Saint Barnabas for mental health issues related to what had appeared to be a suicide attempt. Paul, 20, who was visiting at the same time as his partner’s grandparents, said that everything was fine on the day in question until a conversation with one of the nursing staff turned sour.
“Everything went okay, until a nurse who knew I was [name redacted]‘s boyfriend referred to me as his ‘friend.’ He corrected her and said that I was his partner. She replied with, ‘Oh your partner in crime?’ I said, ‘No, I’m his boyfriend, thank you.’ She then sighed and said ‘Oh… .’ She rolled her eyes, and gave me a thumbs up and walked away.”
Feeling this was inappropriate behavior from the nurse in question, Paul reported the nurse to the relevant staff, whereby he was told that it was “just a joke.” However, when Paul and his partner’s grandparents were preparing to leave for the evening, Paul alleges things turned from bad to worse.
After his partner’s grandparents both hugged and kissed his partner goodbye, Paul went to do the same. He says he was then “cornered” by two nurses who ran across the room to yell at him, “No contact, that is inappropriate.”
Paul maintains that the affection he had shown his partner was entirely appropriate for the setting. He therefore wanted to know why he was being singled out in this way.
“I then asked the nurse why it was okay for everyone else to give hugs and kisses but it was not okay for me?” Paul told Care2 he then gave his partner another kiss goodbye because the first kiss had been interrupted. “She then told another nurse to take me off his list of allowed visitors.” Not knowing how long his partner would be hospitalized for, this was obviously very distressing for Paul. ”I was very upset, and every time I would call a nurse would say, ‘I’m sorry, we have an order that we cannot speak to you, and that he cannot speak to you.’”
Paul says he was told some days later that he would be allowed to visit his partner, but the olive branch was conditional: ”I was then told, ‘He can come back if he promises to be appropriate.’ At that point, I walked out of the hospital,” he said.
Paul told me his partner’s grandparent, who witnessed the incident, also found it distressing, reportedly challenging the nursing staff, “Why are you harassing these two young men?”
Sadly, this was not the only incident of homophobia Paul says had occurred during his partner’s stay at Saint Barnabas. Paul’s partner had previously told him that when it became obvious they were in a gay relationship together, staff had made him feel uneasy as they went about their duties caring for him. Paul also claims that some of the nurses started wearing their wedding bands on different fingers after seeing his partner’s engagement ring. Paul also told Care2 that following his complaint over the alleged harassing behavior, a nurse came up to him and said, “I hope you’re happy, because my job is on the line.”
Paul’s partner, under a reported threat of legal action from his grandparents, was released the day after this incident.
“[He] felt like he had to get out, or he would lose his mind,” Paul said. “He came into the hospital for mental help, and they only made it worse for him. He felt as if he was being judged.”
Last year, the Obama administration issued new guidelines on existing federal anti-discrimination rules, making it explicitly clear that for hospitals and medical facilities running Medicare and Medicaid, it is a violation of federal law to deny access to a same-sex spouse or partner, and that such a denial of rights can cost the hospital its federal funding.
Saint Barnabas, part of the Barnabas Behavioral Health Network, is a JCAHO accredited freestanding 40-bed acute care psychiatric facility that provides inpatient, partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs for adults diagnosed with psychiatric and dual disorders. Saint Barnabas participates in both the Medicare and Medicaid programs and if it were proven that the treatment Paul and his partner faced was solely bias-motivated, and that hospital staff did indeed move to bar Paul for no other reason than a same-sex kiss, it would appear that the center would be open to a legal challenge.
Paul, wanting to explore his options regarding fighting what he sees as a clear case of discrimination, is now working with local equality groups. “If this does not get resolved, we will have no choice but to sue for discrimination and harassment. How are you supposed to get help for personal issues when you are surrounded by people who do not accept you for who you are?”
Paul also has a message for other families in the area, saying, “To all LGBT families, do not go to this behavioral center.”
A request for comment from Saint Barnabas has, at the time of publication, gone unanswered.
Paul, wanting to raise awareness of the alleged incident, started a petition here at Care2. At the time of writing, that petition has over 8,000 signatures.
Image provided by Paul Zilber.