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.
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“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 celibate.
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.