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Legacy of 9/11

10 years later, assessing impact of attacks on rights of same-sex couples

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Mark Bingham and partner Paul Holm

Mark Bingham, pictured here with partner Paul Holm, helped prevent United Flight 93 from reaching D.C. Those passengers are widely credited with saving the U.S. Capitol or White House on Sept. 11, 2001. (Blade file photo)

Ross Levi, executive director of New York’s LGBT advocacy group Empire State Pride Agenda, worked in the group’s lower Manhattan office in a different staff position at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

In what he describes as the first horrifying hours following the crash of two hijacked jetliners into both World Trade Center towers, causing them to collapse, Levi said the ESPA staff joined other New Yorkers in helping survivors and victims any way they could.

“We opened the doors to our offices, which were on 12th Street at the time, to people as they were fleeing the World Trade Center site and coming downtown,” he said. “Many of them came right by our offices and so people were coming in just to use the bathroom and get some water and make phone calls,” he said.

“And in that way we were just a member of the New York family that had to go through this horrible event,” Levi said.

But Levi and other LGBT activists observing the Sept. 11 events as they unfolded said they quickly discovered within a week of the attacks that same-sex partners of those killed, injured or missing in the World Trade Center collapse faced additional hurdles in obtaining government and private sector assistance.

He said ESPA first became aware that same-sex partner survivors were being treated differently when the city and private relief agencies like the Red Cross set up an emergency station on a pier along New York’s Hudson River where people could go to find a family member missing and as yet unaccounted for in the World Trade Center carnage.

“Literally [gay] people had to go there, turn around, go back home and get some paperwork that spouses didn’t have to get to prove a relationship existed,” Levi said. “You were nervous and scared and sad and then you had to go through that. And worse, other people turned them away, even with the paperwork, saying sorry you’re not a family according to our guidelines.”

Activists reflecting on the Sept. 11 tragedy this week said New York City and New York State officials quickly recognized the inequities faced by same-sex partner survivors and took steps to change polices and laws to correct the situation. The changes began to take place, activists, said, following news media reports of the loss of individual LGBT people at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon just outside Washington, which was hit by a third hijacked plane.

“It had such an impact because the loss was about death and relationships,” said Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel for Lambda Legal, an LGBT litigation group, in a 2006 interview with the Blade at the time of the 5th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“The grief and loss was the same between heterosexual and same-sex couples, and a perception of this seemed to come through to much of the public,” Pizer said.

Among the victims widely reported on by the media was Mark Bingham, a gay public relations executive and avid rugby player from San Francisco, who was one of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into the countryside in Pennsylvania.

Bingham’s mother said she spoke to him by cell phone after his hijacked plane was believed to be heading toward Washington, D.C. for another terrorist attack. She said she believes her son was part of a small group of passengers believed to have attempted to wrestle control of the plane from the hijackers.

Authorities have speculated that passengers such as Bingham and others most likely intervened to prevent the hijackers from crashing the jetliner into a building in Washington, such as the Capitol or the White House.

Bingham was among the 9/11 victims portrayed in the Hollywood film “United 93.”

David Charlebois

American Airlines pilot David Charlebois, who was gay, served as co-pilot onboard American Airlines Flight 77 when terrorists hijacked it and crashed it into the Pentagon. (Blade file photo)

Another of the victims widely reported in the media was American Airlines pilot David Charlebois, who was gay and an active member of the National Gay Pilots Association. Charlebois was serving as first officer, or co-pilot, onboard American Airlines Flight 77 when terrorists hijacked the Boeing 757 jetliner and crashed it into the Pentagon.

All of its crew and passengers perished along with dozens of Pentagon employees working in the part of the building struck by the plane.

Charlebois’ surviving partner of 14 years, Tom Hay, was treated with respect and honor by American Airlines’ top brass and colleagues when more than a dozen uniformed company pilots and flight attendants attended Charlebois’ funeral mass at St. Matthews Cathedral in downtown D.C.

“It was a time when all Americans did come together with a single, united focus,” said David Smith, vice president of programs for the Human Rights Campaign and the national LGBT advocacy group’s media spokesperson at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“And there were extraordinary acts of kindness and recognition that this is an issue that needs to be dealt with, i.e., our families need to be protected,” Smith said. “But it also really brought into stark reality how the lack of recognition of our families causes real pain and at times almost insurmountable challenges that families that are protected by law through marriage don’t have to experience.”

Levi said ESPA was pleased when, in response to requests by LGBT advocacy groups and media reports, then GOP Gov. George Pataki issued an executive order in October 2001 that included surviving partners of gay and lesbian victims of the World Trade Center attacks in receiving full spousal benefits from the state’s Crime Victims Board.

“The order marks the first official step taken by any level of government in the nation to address the inequities faced by gay and lesbian survivors of the terrorist attacks in obtaining benefits,” ESPA said in a statement at the time.

The New York State Legislature soon followed suit by passing three separate bills that included same-sex partner survivors in various state benefits to be allocated to 9/11 survivors and their families. One provided state worker’s compensation benefits to domestic partners of 9/11 victims.

Another bill approved by the legislature enabled same-sex partners and their children to be eligible for a newly created World Trade Center Memorial Scholarship Program. A third bill passed by the legislature called on the federal government to include same-sex partners in federal relief programs for 9/11 survivors.

A short time later, the Red Cross responded to requests by ESPA, HRC, Lambda Legal and other LGBT groups by opening up its disaster relief programs to same-sex partner survivors. Activists called the action historic and noted it resulted in badly needed relief for LGBT victims of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast several years later.

On the federal level, President George W. Bush and Republican members of Congress joined Democrats in approving a massive, $7 billion Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund. Officials said the program was aimed at providing a viable alternative to thousands of individual wrongful death lawsuits that likely would have emerged against airline companies and the company that operated the World Trade Center if such a fund were not created.

But LGBT advocacy groups once again discovered that the relief funds would likely be out of reach for surviving same-sex partners of 9/11 victims. Among other things, the fund’s administrator, attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who had worked for the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), said rules for who is eligible for receiving as much as $1.3 million in compensation payments would have to be linked to state probate laws and rules.

At the time, no state probate law recognized same-sex relationships, even if they were made legal on the local level by a city or county domestic partnership ordinance.

ESPA, HRC, Lambda Legal and other advocacy groups said they worked hard to lobby the U.S. Justice Department, which had jurisdiction over the compensation fund program, to take administrative steps to include same-sex couples survivors in the program.

At the time, Feinberg told the Blade that while he was concerned about the plight of surviving domestic partners of the Sept. 11 victims, it was not feasible to include specific domestic partner provisions in the relief fund’s regulations.

“If I get in the middle of that fight and try and trump local probate law in a particular case, I’ll be up to my neck in lawsuits,” he said. “I’m not saying they’re not entitled,” he said. “I’m not saying they are entitled.”

Smith of HRC said at least two of about 22 known LGBT partner survivors in the Sept. 11 attacks did receive compensation from the fund. Smith said the compensation payments came about, however, when surviving blood relatives chose not to challenge the same-sex partners’ application for the compensation.

In a separate development, HRC, ESPA, Lambda Legal and other LGBT advocacy groups 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 a May 2006 announcement, ESPA said the known surviving partners of gay or lesbian victims of 9/11 had received nearly $17,315 each from the new Gay & Lesbian Family Fund. ESPA said at the time that the groups raised a total of $378,812 for the fund, with only $11,193, or 2.9 percent, being spent on administrative costs.

“The Family Fund was established in December [2001] to help offset the discrimination gay and lesbian partners faced in obtaining benefits automatically afforded to surviving spouses, including Social Security and Workers Compensation survivor benefits, and compensation under the Federal 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund,” the ESPA statement said.

“I don’t think there is one of us who were of remembering age who lives their life the same on Sept. 11 at 8 o’clock in the morning as we did at 10 o’clock in the morning on that day,” said Winnie Stachelberg, senior vice president for external affairs for the Center for American Progress, and who served as HRC’s political director in 2001.

“And my hope is it’s changed us to respect our diversity, to honor our humanity,” she said. “I don’t know if we’ve embraced those lessons but in this 10th year anniversary if we don’t remember that we need to honor our diversity and our humanity we will not have learned from the tragedy of Sept. 11.”

Another of the widely reported 9/11 victims was Father Mychal Judge, a gay Catholic priest and beloved New York Fire Department chaplain. Judge was killed when struck by falling debris next to the World Trade Center while he was performing last rites for a dying firefighter. His sexual orientation, while not widely known until after his death, was confirmed by New York Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, who told New York magazine that Judge confided to him that he was both gay and celebate.

In 2002, Congress honored Judge by using his name for the landmark Mychal Judge Police and Fire Chaplains Public Safety Officers Benefit Act. The law marked the first time the federal government had extended an equal benefit for same-sex couples, in this case allowing domestic partners of public safety officers killed in the line of duty to obtain a federal death benefit.

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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court declines to hear lawsuit against Montgomery County schools gender guidelines

4th Circuit last August dismissed parents’ case

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U.S. Supreme Court (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a lawsuit against Montgomery County Public Schools guidelines that allow schools to create plans in support of transgender or gender nonconfirming students without their parents’ knowledge or consent.

Three parents of students in the school district — none of whom have trans or gender nonconfirming children — filed the lawsuit. 

A judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last August dismissed the case. The plaintiffs appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

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National

Bill to support LGBTQ seniors in rural areas reintroduced

Advocates praise Elder Pride Act

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(Washington Blade file photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

Representatives Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), and Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) reintroduced legislation to increase access to needed services and resources for LGBTQ seniors who live in rural areas this week.

The Elder Pride Act would bolster the capacity and ability of Area Agencies on Aging located in rural communities to better serve and support LGBTQ seniors who often require affirming care, services, and supports that are often underfunded and scarce in many parts of the country.

Recent surveys show that between 2.9 million and 3.8 million LGBTQ people live in rural American communities.

“LGBTQ+ elders and older people living with HIV live in every part of this nation, including rural areas. We all deserve to be able to age in our communities with the services and supports we need to remain independent,” SAGE CEO Michael Adams said in the press release announcing the reintroduction of the legislation. “We commend Representatives Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Mark Pocan (D-WI), and Sharice Davids (D-KS) on reintroducing the Elder Pride Act. And we honor the contributions of our many LGBTQ+ trailblazers whose tireless advocacy allowed us to reintroduce this critical bill. We look forward to working alongside Reps. Bonamici, Pocan, and Davids, and our LGBTQ+ pioneers nationwide to pass this legislation.”

“LGBTQI+ seniors should be able to access services and care that meets their unique needs, regardless of where they live,” said Bonamici, chair of the Equality Caucus’s LGBTQ+ Aging Issues Task Force.”Those who live in rural areas frequently face increased barriers, which Congress can break down. The Elder Pride Act will increase resources for programs and services that will improve the lives of LGBTQI+ elders.”

“The Elder Pride Act will improve the overall health and social and economic well-being of LGBTQI+ older adults and seniors living with HIV in rural areas by better equipping senior service providers with resources to address the unique needs of these communities. I’m pleased to introduce this important legislation with my colleagues and co-leaders on the Equality Caucus, Reps. Pocan and Davids,” Bonamici added.

“Rural LGBTQI+ seniors have been lacking access to necessary services and care for too long,” said Pocan, co-chair of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus. “The Elder Pride Act creates opportunities for LGBTQ+ seniors in rural communities, benefiting everyone in the region. I look forward to advancing this important legislation.”

“Many of our LGBTQ+ elders fought tirelessly for equality in a world that refused to accept their identity,” said Davids. “While they overcame tremendous odds to give future generations the rights they deserve, our elders, particularly those in rural communities, continue to face discrimination when accessing long-term care and healthcare. I am proud to support the Elder Pride Act because who you are and who you love should never increase your risk for isolation, poverty, and poor health outcomes as you age.”

The Elder Pride Act complements the Older American Act, which was updated under Bonamici’s leadership, by establishing a rural grant program designed to fund care and services for LGBTQ seniors. The grant would also support programs that:

• Provide services such as cultural competency training for service providers;

• Develop modes of connection between LGBTQI+ older adults and local service providers and community organizations;

• Expand the use of nondiscrimination policies and community spaces for older adults who are members of the LGBTQI+ community or another protected class; and,

• Disseminate resources on sexual health and aging for senior service providers.

A fact sheet on the legislation can be found here, and the full text can be found here.

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State Department

State Department travel advisory warns of potential anti-LGBTQ violence

FBI issued similar warning this week

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(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The State Department on Friday issued a worldwide travel advisory that warns of potential violence against LGBTQ people and LGBTQ-specific events.

“Due to the potential for terrorist attacks, demonstrations, or violent actions against U.S. citizens and interests, the Department of State advises U.S. citizens overseas to exercise increased caution,” reads the advisory. “The Department of State is aware of the increased potential for foreign terrorist organization-inspired violence against LGBTQI+ persons and events and advises U.S. citizens overseas to exercise increased caution.”  

The advisory further urges U.S. citizens to:

  • Stay alert in locations frequented by tourists, including Pride celebrations and venues frequented by LGBTQI+ persons.
  • Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive information and alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency overseas.
  • Follow the Department of State on Facebook and Twitter.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Homeland Security Investigations earlier this week issued a similar advisory.

The advisory notes June 12 will mark eight years since the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

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