9/11, LGBTQ people, & a nation’s unfulfilled promise of unity

Note: This piece was originally written in 2006. It has been updated at the bottom.

It was, in a sense, a queer day. The events of 9/11 brought two things into sharp focus for me.

One, that my soon-to-be-husband was the first person I wanted to call. We’d been together just over a year, and a month earlier we moved into our first home together.

Two, that America was under attack in a way that I’d never seen before, and in a way that brought home not just my own vulnerability, but of the man I love, and the vulnerability of our relationship in the face of the new reality that we were all plunged into on that day.

As an American, my life became a little less secure. As a gay man in a committed relationship, our life together became even less secure, but in a way that differed from most people.

So, while it was and probably still is impolitic to view 9/11 and the aftermath through the lens of my identity as a gay man, that’s a necessarily a part of the context of that day for me. And today it seems appropriate to acknowledge how much gay and lesbian Americans were a part of that day.

What I remember is that I got to work and almost as soon as I sat down at my desk I turned on the radio and heard NPR News announce that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. I thought it was probably some propeller job that had gotten off course. I was in the middle of my first Diet Coke of the morning when I heard the news that a second plane had crashed into the remaining tower.

I suppose that’s when I joined the collective “oh shit” moment that lots of other people were beginning to experience. That’s when I picked up my cell phone to call my hubby. He was the one person I wanted desperately to talk to, to let him know I was OK and to find out if he was too, but the circuits were all either busy or jammed. I raced down to the conference room at work, where I was sure someone would have tuned the television to CNN as everyone else gathered.

Related: I was working as a flight attendant on September 11 when the terrorists attacked

I got downstairs in time to watch the footage of both crashes replayed. I stayed long enough to see the live footage of the towers collapsing. As I watched I thought about the people on the planes, in the towers and on the ground below. I thought about how I would feel, and what it would mean, if I were one of them.

And I knew how easily I could have been, as I was scheduled to fly to a conference the next day (which was, of course, cancelled). I thought about their families and what it would mean if my husband were one of the people on the planes or in the towers.

And I knew, though there were no specifics at that moment, that there were families like mine on those planes, in the towers, and in the Pentagon that day. It seems important to remember them today, in a way that fully acknowledges who they were, the lives they lead, and who they left behind.

As frequently as we are written out of history, there has to be some effort to remember gays & lesbians affected by the 9/11 attacks.

Tom Hay
Tom Hay

Less than a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks rocked the United States and much of the world, Tom Hay sat tensely in a pew near the front of St. Matthews Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Minutes earlier, dozens of flight crew employees of American Airlines, wearing their formal, navy blue dress uniforms, filed into the cathedral to join Hay and hundreds of others for a memorial mass for pilot David Charlebois.

Charlebois, Hay’s domestic partner for nearly 13 years, held the position of first officer onboard American Airlines Flight 77 at the time terrorists hijacked the Boeing 757 jetliner and crashed it into the Pentagon.

… Hay was among at least 22 known survivors of same-sex partners that died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which included crashing two other jetliners into New York’s World Trade Center buildings. A fourth hijacked plane plunged into the countryside in Western Pennsylvania.

Most of the 22 gay widows and widowers would soon face a tangle of legal obstacles over inheritance rights and a first-of-its-kind victim compensation program offered by the federal government that would complicate their lives and, in many cases, add to their grief.

Like I said, I was sure as I watched the events unfold that somewhere there was another gay man or lesbian watching and wondering – or perhaps knowing with certainty – that a partner wasn’t going to be coming back home.

I was pretty sure there were couples who died together that day, and I thought about it a month later when the hubby and I boarded a plane for Hawaii (where, unbeknownst to me, he would present me with a ring). By then I knew of at least one gay family that had died together on one of the planes that day.

Daniel Brandhorst and Ronald Gamboa with their son, David.
Daniel Brandhorst and Ronald Gamboa with their son, David.

I thought about them a year later when we boarded another flight, this time to take Parker to visit relatives for the first time.

 

Plump-cheeked preschooler David Brandhorst-Gamboa and his two fathers, Daniel Brandhorst and Ronald Gamboa, were returning home to Los Angeles from a vacation at Cape Cod on United Airlines Flight 175. They died together as it slammed into the World Trade Center.

By that time I’d already heard about Mark Bingham, a gay rugby player who, many people believe, was among the passengers who brought down flight 93 before it reached its destination that day.

Mark Bingham
Mark Bingham

And perhaps the most well-known gay 9/11 victim, public relations executive and rugby player Mark Bingham, helped fight back against terrorists on United Airlines Flight 93, causing it to crash in a rural Pennsylvania field instead of reaching its target in Washington, D.C.

Bingham’s mother reported that her son informed her in a cell phone conversation that his plane had been hijacked and he expected to join several other passengers in an attempt to wrestle control of the plane from the hijackers.

Bingham was among the 9/11 victims portrayed in the recently release film “United 93,” named after the United Airlines flight in which all passengers perished.

Sheila Hein
Sheila Hein

And I’d read about Sheila Hein, who died in the attack on the Pentagon, leaving a partner 17 years to mourn her.

Sheila Hein, a Maryland resident who left behind her partner of 17 years, was working in the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into it.

That is, to mourn her and to also face a legal struggle for the same compensation that legal spouses received.

Neff preferred to keep her private life, well, private: “I never wanted to be political.” But when the plane hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11, killing Hein, Neff’s world changed forever.

Since then, she’s made headlines. When denied compensation by Virginia’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund, she meet with representatives of national gay and lesbian rights organizations, and is now negotiating with Kenneth Feinberg, an appointee of Attorney General John Ashcroft who is administering the federal September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. Her case is being cited by lawyers working to ensure that same-sex domestic partners of Sept. 11 victims have the same rights as those in heterosexual marriages.

And Father Mychal Judge, the priest who was killed by falling debris as he ministered to first responders in his capacity as chaplain to the NYC Fire Department.

Father Mychal Judge
Father Mychal Judge

Mychal Judge, a gay Catholic priest who served as a chaplain for the New York City Fire Department, was giving last rites to an injured firefighter when the Twin Towers collapsed, killing them both and many others.

As soon as I think I can do so without breaking down completely, I’ll watch the documentary tribute to Fr. Judge.

At the time I didn’t yet know of Eugene Clark and his partner Larry Courtney.

Eugene Clark and his partner Larry Courtney
Eugene Clark and his partner Larry Courtney

On October 30, 2001, Eugene Clark and I would have celebrated 14 years as committed lifetime partners. On the morning of September 11, we got up early, had coffee together and dressed for work. He kissed me goodbye and said, “I’ll see you tonight.”

He left a little earlier than usual so that he could vote in New York City’s primary election before the polls got crowded. He then boarded the “E” train for his ride to the office. He worked for on Consulting on the 102nd floor of Tower number 2, the south tower, of the World Trade Center.

About 8:55 I got to my office in mid-town and noticed the message light on my phone was blinking. I retrieved the message. It was Gene. “Don’t worry, the plane hit the other building. I’m OK. We are evacuating.” At 9:03 a second hijacked plane hit the 86th floor of the south tower.

The building collapsed at 10:05. Gene never came home from work.

Nor had I heard about Wesley Mercer yet.

Wesley Mercer
Wesley Mercer

The matching gold bands Bill Randolph and Wesley Mercer wore may have been a tip-off. Or the postcards from their yearly vacations together in Barbados, signed “Bill and Wesley.” Or even the simple fact that the two men shared an apartment for 26 years and did everything together.

“Our friends just sort of knew that we were together, we were a couple,” said Randolph, 45. “We didn’t have to wear signs or go to parades or anything like that.”

But, after Mercer, 70, died in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks, Randolph said he has had to struggle to defend the relationship, to prove he was Mercer’s life partner and that, as a gay couple, their commitment was equal to that of married straight people.

With mixed success.

Morgan Stanley, where Mercer was vice president of corporate security, acknowledged Randolph as Mercer’s surviving partner and gave him $700 cash to cover immediate expenses and, later, a $10,000 check.

… But for Randolph, who relied on Mercer for more than half of the household income, several avenues of relief are blocked. He will be receiving no social security benefits, no workers’ compensation, and none of Mercer’s military pension from his 25 years of Army service because statutes governing those funds specify that only surviving spouses are eligible.

And there are lots more.

If I’d had a blog at the time, I would probably have posted something like this then. I did post it at an online forum I visited frequently at the time (and where I went, like many other Americans on that day, to get information on people I knew), and at least some of the responses I got included accusations of “spreading divisiveness” by acknowledging specific gay & lesbian Americans among the people killed on 9/11 and among their surviving families.

Some people told me “now is not the time” and that the events of the day had somehow magically erased differences and inequalities that existed moments before the first plane hit the first tower, and thus, “we are all Americans now.” One or two suggested it was less than patriotic to refer to myself as a gay American or an African American, or anything else but just an American.

Yet, five years later, we aren’t all “just Americans,” particularly when it comes to gay & lesbian Americans facing state constitutional amendments that might just define their families out of legal existence.

How would the same-sex partners of 9/11 victims fair under a state constitutional amendment like the one in Virginia? How would a judge interpret it to apply to same-sex partners and compensation? How would an amendment like the one proposed in Wisconsin affect same-sex partners of victims if there is another terrorist attack on U.S. soil? For that matter, how would the rights of unmarried heterosexual couples fare under any of these amendments?

Five years ago, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on Americans like David Charlebois, the Brandhorst-Gamboa family, Mark Bingham, Sheila Hein, Father Mychal Judge, Eugene Clark, Wesley Mercer, and others. Five years later, political leaders and presidential hopefuls are courting both Robertson & Falwell and their audiences. (And, no, I don’t buy the apology offered by Falwell any more than I excuse the lack of one from Robertson.)

Five years later, and some conservatives are still blaming us.

Five years later, remembering all of the above, it’s another queer day, in a very different sense. Five years later, what does it say about American’s “unity” that many states are pursuing amendments that would constitutionalize discrimination? Five years later, many gay & lesbian Americans are considerably less safe in terms their legal status, in the fact of another potential terrorist attack. How are we remembering these victims on 9/11?

It may be impolitic, maybe even unpatriotic to say this, but 9/11 didn’t erase our differences or make us all “simply Americans.” In fact, since then, our leaders have worked hard to make us more divided since that day, and many Americans have gone out of their way to legally make their fellow citizens something slightly less than fully American.

Yet, today we will hear more rhetoric about our “unity” and how the events of 9/11 “brought us together” as a country. We’ll likely be told that America’s promise is almost completely fulfilled; that we’re already “there.” And we’ll pretend to honor all that our founding documents claim, while simultaneously dishonoring the memories of 9/11 victims like the families above.

And I’ll probably hear the usual refrains of “Now is not the time” and “Today is not the day.” But if that’s true, then there will never be a time and the day will never come.

Yup. It’s a queer day. Again.

Update: In August 2002, New York passed a state law which amended existing state workers’ compensation rules to include domestic partners of 9/11 victims.

“I’m glad this law recognizes that Gene and I were a couple in every way — emotionally, financially, legally, and in our everyday lives,” said Larry Courtney, whose partner of 14 years, Eugene Clark, died at the World Trade Center.

Initially, Virginia’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund administrators refused to acknowledge that Peggy Neff and Sheila Hein were anything more than “friends.” However, in January 2003, “the federal government’s 9-11 Compensation Fund approved what is said to be the first payment to [Neff], a person in a gay relationship whose partner was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.”

LGBT advocacy groups including the Human Rights Campaign, Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), and Lambda Legal created the September 11 Gay & Lesbian Family Fund to provide some relief to surviving partners who were ineligible for help from the federal relief fund program.

In  May 2006, ESPA announced the known surviving partners of LGBT victims of 9/11 had received nearly $17,315 each from the new fund. The group said at the time that the organizations raised a total of $378,812 for the fund.


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