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Sept. 11 introduced U.S. to gay families

Activists ponder impact of attacks on gay survivors, couples’ rights


Sep. 08, 2006

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

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 more than two hundred 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.

But on that day at St. Matthews, Hay was afforded the full dignity and respect of a surviving spouse in a national tragedy that appeared to be shared equally by all those who suffered the loss of loved ones.

“It had such an impact because the loss was about death and relationships,” said Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel for Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, a gay litigation group that represented several of the same-sex partner survivors in the 9/11 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.

Yet Pizer and other gay rights advocates familiar with the 9/11 tragedy said that, five years later, they remain uncertain whether the memory of lost same-sex partners would continue to spill over into the political area and prompt lawmakers to approve domestic partner, civil union and even same-sex marriage laws.

In the days following the attacks, Americans learned through the news media of other gay victims of the 9/11 attacks. Among them was Mark Bingham, a public relations executive and rugby player in San Francisco.

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’s plane was the one that crashed into the countryside in Pennsylvania, leading authorities to speculate that passengers such as Bingham and others most likely intervened to prevent the hijackers from crashing the jetliner into a building in Washington, D.C. such as the U.S. Capitol or the White House.

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.

‘Unprecedented’ support for grieving gay partners

In the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Lambda Legal; the Empire State Pride Agenda, a New York gay rights group; the Human Rights Campaign; and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force stepped in to provide legal and financial assistance to some of the surviving same-sex partners.

“It became clear to us that some were falling through the cracks of existing disaster relief programs,” said Joe Tarver, spokesperson for the Empire State Pride Agenda.

The groups created a joint “September 11 Gay & Lesbian Family Fund,” which provided about $17,000 in emergency relief for each of 22 same-sex couple survivors, Tarver said. He said the groups raised about $379,000 for the fund.

ESPA and HRC, among other groups, met with top officials of the American Red Cross, which initially limited its relief services to blood relatives or married spouses of 9/11 victims. In a development that disaster relief observers considered unprecedented, the Red Cross adopted a new set of criteria for defining a “family member” eligible for relief assistance that included domestic partners.

Agreeing to suggestions by ESPA, HRC and Lambda Legal, Red Cross officials adopted criteria such as a joint bank account, the naming of a partner as an insurance beneficiary or a joint lease on an apartment as verification that an applicant for relief was a legitimate partner eligible for relief services.

Red Cross officials went a step further by putting the new criteria in place for all future disasters such as hurricanes and floods.

The New York State Legislature was the next to take steps to provide assistance to same-sex survivors in the 9/11 attacks. With the support of Republican Gov. George Pataki, the legislature passed a bill that 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. The legislature passed a third measure calling on the federal government to include same-sex partners in federal relief programs aimed at 9/11 survivors.


Over the next few years, the legislature adopted domestic partner measures that apply to all state residents in addition to 9/11 partners. Hospital visitation rights, the right to take position of the remains of a deceased partner, and eligibility of partners of state employees to join credit unions were among the same-sex partner benefits included in the domestic partner bills.

Gay rights advocates described the federal relief program put in place by the Bush administration as a “mixed bag” for same-sex partner survivors of the 9/11 attacks.

Congress approved the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, which allocated more than $7 billion to provide compensation to families of 2,880 people killed and 2,680 people injured in the terrorist attacks. 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 offered.

The legislation creating the fund did not restrict unmarried relatives or partners from receiving compensation under the program, a development that prompted gay Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to say it opened the way for inclusion for domestic partners.

But implementing regulations prepared by special master Kenneth Fienberg, whom President Bush named to run the program, called for leaving the decision on who was eligible for relief to the probate laws of the individual states where the victims lived.

That policy meant that same-sex partners would likely be shut out of the program in nearly all states unless the couples had wills that designated the surviving partner the beneficiary of the deceased person’s estate.

Pizer of Lambda Legal said her group knows of cases where some of the 22 known surviving gay partners worked amicably with blood relatives of the deceased person and obtained a share of the compensation allocation. Feinberg said the average disbursement came to more than $2 million for the estate of each person killed in the 9/11 attacks.

In other cases, Pizer said, parents and siblings prevented a same-sex partner from receiving any compensation. In such cases, the same-sex partners did not have a bill or other legal documents that legally recognized their relationships.

“One of the key lessons for our community in this tragedy is not to put off preparing basic legal documents such as a will,” Pizer said. “It’s a very affirming and loving thing to do.”




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