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.”
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  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.
Gay man shot to death on NYC subway train
Police say shooting was random and unprovoked
A gay man became the latest victim of a New York City subway shooting on Sunday when police say a male suspect shot Daniel Enriquez, 48, in the chest in an unprovoked random act inside a subway car traveling from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
Police on Tuesday arrested Andrew Abdullah, 25, who they identified as the sole suspect in the shooting, after attorneys representing him from the Legal Aid Society attempted to arrange for his surrender, according to a report by NBC 4 News in New York.
Police said the shooting occurred around 11:42 a.m. while the train was traveling over the Manhattan Bridge. The then unidentified suspect walked off the train and disappeared into a crowd of people when the train stopped at the Canal Street station minutes after Enriquez lay dying on the floor on the train car, police said.
Possibly based on the viewing of images from video surveillance cameras, police sources told the New York Times that investigators identified the suspect as Abdullah whose last known residence was in Manhattan, as a suspect in the fatal shooting. NYPD officials released two photos of Abdullah and appealed to the public for help in finding him.
Adam Pollack, Enriquez’s partner of 18 years, told both the Times and the New York Post that Enriquez took the subway to meet his brother for brunch. According to Pollack, Enriquez previously had taken Ubers into Manhattan, where he worked and socialized, from the couple’s home in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. But in recent weeks the cost of taking an Uber rose dramatically to more than $80 for the round-trip fare, prompting Enriquez to begin taking the subway, Pollack told the Times and Post.
“I don’t love the subway,” the Post quoted Pollack as saying. “I know how dangerous New York is. It took me two years to get back on the subway. I don’t feel safe on the subway,” he said.
The fatal shooting of Enriquez took place six weeks after another gunman identified as Frank R. James began shooting inside a crowded rush-hour subway car in Brooklyn, injuring at least 23 people.
Pollack told the Times his partner was a native New Yorker who worked as a researcher for the Goldman Sachs investment bank in Manhattan. Enriquez was the eldest of five children and a beloved uncle known for taking his nieces and nephews for ice cream in local parks and out to amusement parks when he visited them, Pollack told the Times.
When asked by the Washington Blade if any evidence has surfaced to indicate suspect Abdullah targeted Enriquez because he thought Enriquez was gay, a police public information officer said the investigation into the incident was continuing.
“There’s nothing on that now,” the officer said. “Everything, the motive, and all of that stuff, is part of the investigation and that is still ongoing. So, there’s no comment on that yet.”
The Times reports that court records show Abdullah, who is now in police custody, was charged along with others in 2017 in an 83-count indictment for alleged gang related activity. The following year he pleaded guilty to criminal possession of weapons and other charges in 2018 and was sentenced the following year to a prison term and released on parole several months later.
According to the Times, he faced new gun charges in 2020, was charged in 2021 with assault and endangering a child, and in April of this year was charged with possession of stolen property and unauthorized use of a vehicle.
“We are devastated by this senseless tragedy and our deepest sympathies are with Dan’s family at this difficult time,” Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon said in a statement.
Federal judge blocks White House from ending Title 42
Advocacy groups say policy further endangered LGBTQ asylum seekers
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic was to have ended Monday, but it remains in place after a federal judge blocked the Biden administration’s plans to end it.
The White House last month announced it would terminate Title 42, a policy the previous administration implemented in March 2020.
U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays in Louisiana on May 20 issued a ruling that prevented the Biden administration from terminating the Trump-era policy. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a statement announced the Justice Department will appeal the decision, while adding the administration “will continue to enforce the CDC’s 2020 Title 42 public health authority pending the appeal.”
“This means that migrants who attempt to enter the United States unlawfully will be subject to expulsion under Title 42, as well as immigration consequences such as removal under Title 8 (of the U.S. Code),” said Jean-Pierre.
Advocacy groups and members of Congress with whom the Washington Blade has spoken since Title 42 took effect say it continues to place LGBTQ asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups who seek refuge in the U.S. at even more risk.
Oluchi Omeoga, co-director of the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, last month described Title 42 as a “racist and harmful policy.” ORAM (Organization of Refuge, Asylum and Migration) Executive Director Steve Roth said Title 42 “put asylum seekers in harm’s way in border towns and prevented them from seeking safety in the United States.”
Title 42 was to have ended less than a month after five members of Congress from California visited two LGBTQ shelters for asylum seekers in the Mexican border city of Tijuana.
The Council for Global Equality, which organized the trip, in a tweet after Summerhays issued his ruling described Title 42 as a “catastrophe.”
“The Biden administration cannot breathe a sign of relief until it’s a matter of the past,” said the Council for Global Equality on Saturday. “We remain committed to end Title 42.”
— The Council for Global Equality (@Global_Equality) May 20, 2022
U.S. Army considers allowing LGBTQ troops to transfer from hostile states
Proposed guidance remains in draft form
A draft policy is circulating among top officials of the U.S. Army that would allow soldiers to be able to request a transfer if they feel state or local laws discriminate against them based on gender, sex, religion, race or pregnancy.
Steve Beynon writing for Military.com reported last week the guidance, which would update a vague service policy to add specific language on discrimination, is far from final and would need approval from Army Secretary Christine Wormuth. But if enacted, it could be one of the most progressive policies for the Army amid a growing wave of local anti-LGBTQ and restrictive contraception laws in conservative-leaning states, where the Army has a majority of its bases and major commands.
“Some states are becoming untenable to live in; there’s a rise in hate crimes and rise in LGBT discrimination,” Lindsay Church, executive director of Minority Veterans of America, an advocacy group, told Military.com. “In order to serve this country, people need to be able to do their job and know their families are safe. All of these states get billions for bases but barely tolerate a lot of the service members.”
This policy tweak to the existing Army regulations pertaining to compassionate reassignment would clarify the current standard rules, which are oft times fairly vague.
A source in the Army told Beynon the new guidance has not yet been fully worked out through the policy planning process or briefed to senior leaders including the Army secretary or the office of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
“The Army does not comment on leaked, draft documents,” Angel Tomko, a service spokesperson, told Military.com in an emailed statement. “AR 600-100 and 600-200 establish the criteria for which soldiers may request for a compassionate reassignment. The chain of command is responsible for ensuring soldiers and families’ needs are supported and maintain a high quality of life.”
The Crystal City-based RAND Corporation had published a study on sexual orientation, gender identity and health among active duty servicemembers in 2015 that listed approximate six percent of LGBTQ troops are gay or bisexual and one percent are trans or nonbinary.
A senior analyst for RAND told the Washington Blade on background those numbers are likely much lower than in actuality as 2015 was less than four years after the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and prior to when the Trump administration enacted the trans servicemember ban in 2017, which has had a chilling effect on open service.
The Biden administration repealed the Trump ban.
Another factor is that the current 18-24 year old troops colloquially referred to as “Gen Z” are much more inclined to embrace an LGBTQ identity and that would cause the numbers to be higher than reported.
Also factored in is uncertainty in the tweaking of policy in light of the recent leak of the draft U.S. Supreme Court decision that would effectively repeal Roe v. Wade.
According to Military.com it’s unclear whether the Army’s inclusion of pregnancy on the list would protect reproductive care for soldiers if Roe v. Wade is overturned. That language could be intended to protect pregnant service members or their families from employment or other discrimination, but could also be a means for some to argue for transfers based on broader reproductive rights.
One advocacy group pointed out that the current wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation will negatively impact the moral of service members:
“What we’re seeing across the board is a small group of elected officials who are trying to politicize and weaponize LGBTQ identities in despicable ways. They’re not only doing that to our youth, but the collateral damage is hurting our service members,” Jacob Thomas, communications director for Common Defense, a progressive advocacy organization, told Military.com. “[Troops] can’t be forced to live in places where they aren’t seen as fully human.”
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