The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Gay Americans & 9/11: On A Queer Day

I suppose that, being a political blogger (or a blogger period) it’s almost obligatory that I do some sort of post related to the 5th anniversary of 9/11, about where I was, what I saw, what I felt, and what changed for me after that day. It was, in a sense, a queer day. The events of 9/11 brought two things came into sharp focus for me. One, that my husband was the first person I’d called. We’d been together just over a year, and just 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 the vulnerability 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, 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 & lesbian Americans were a part of the events on 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 (back then I drank Diet Coke like it was water, something that’s changed since then) 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 the 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.

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 very next day (which was, of course, canceled). 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 that day.

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. So I’m glad that at least there some effort to remember gays & lesbians affected by the 9/11 attacks.

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 if, 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. 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 ruby player who — many of the people who knew him believed — was probably among the passengers who brought down flight 93 before it reached its destination that day.

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.

And I’d read about Sheila Hein, who died in the attack on the Pentagon, leaving a partner of 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 I would read about 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.

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.

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.

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 at the time. 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, Fr. 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 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 codify discrimination and enshrine it in their constitutions? 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 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 gay & lesbian fellow citizens something slightly less than fully American.

Yet, today we will probably 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; or that we’re already “there.” And we’ll pretend to be 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.

16 Comments

  1. I consider it highly appropriate, T. In fact, I can’t think of any day of the year that it would be appropriate for you to erase yourself for the comfort or convenience of the prejudices of others.

    Big hugs.

  2. I see the our faces reflected back at us in those pictures.

  3. “But implementing regulations… called for leaving the decision on who was eligible for relief to the probate laws of the individual states where the victims lived.”

    Very typical of the government. The same transpired back in the late 1800s when President Hayes left racial issues (ethnic/people issues) to individual states. It was a different time and it concerned a different category of people–but a people nonetheless, a myriad of people who were considered the “other”. You still see the effects of it today; you breathe it in the air… I breathe it in the air.

    Is it unpatriotic to speak one’s mind in this day and age? Not amongst progressives/open-minded individuals. With the rest of society–yes. America will always be divided in one form or another. There will always be difference and value (or displaced value) associated with that difference–the difference between the haves and have-nots will be the end result, always.

    I’m forgetting my sociological jargon; if the assertions above do not make sense, it is because my mind has atrophied to an extent, at least academically.

    @-;-

    PS I should be thankful I’m an American citizen, right? *smirk I should be thankful I was born on this side of the border–an imaginary line crisscrossing Mother Earth.

  4. Pingback: Daddy, Papa & Me

  5. This would be appropriate right now. Pull out the tissue paper!

    http://www.albinoblacksheep.com/flash/shii.php

    @-;-

  6. I remain fascinated by the notion that, by blaming 9-11 on ‘sinfulness’ of Americans in the form of gay sex and other simple pleasures, they essentially said God is favoring radical Islamic regimes precisely because they are intolerant, murderous regimes that proclaim the coming judgment. Apparently, the idea that the people of another culture might simply be reacting against incessant, murderous intervention by the distant modern “Roman” empire and its false prophets didn’t cross their minds.

    Some people are so delusional, they can’t even recognize themselves when they’re looking in a mirror in which others are portraying them using scripts they themselves wrote many years ago.

  7. Pingback: aTypical Joe: A gay New Yorker living in the rural south.

  8. I haven’t read your blog much before, but liked this post. I lived in Manhattan on 9/11 and so, i’ll share a few of my memories from that day.

    10 days before 9/11 I had just gone back to school and moved into my new dorm in midtown Manhattan. I lived on the 26th floor and had a pretty nice view of southern Manhattan. The first few days living there it was always, ‘oh wow, what a view, lets keep the blinds open’. Then 9/11 happened and it was ‘oh God, let’s close the blinds, I don’t want to look at that anymore.’

    Getting out of class and walking over to 3rd Avenue that morning, looking south and seeing the huge mushroom cloud of smoke for the first time, it looked like an atom bomb had gone off. I was standing with friends and when we saw it, we just stared. No one said anything for awhile. The streets were completely empty. There were no cars. People were walking in the middle of the street like you see in those zombie movies where civilization is fallling apart. Everyone was walking north.

    I was with my friend Rachel for most of the morning, scrambling around, trying to help her get information on her mom who worked in the WTC. While we were running around, trying to find a working phone, we stumbled into an Equinox Gym that had a TV on. People were crowded around it, watching the news coverage. Having not seen any news up untill that point, I was still in disbelief of what I had heard and upon seeing footage of the 2 towers smoking and burning, I elbowed Rachel and said “see, look, they’re still standing.” That’s when someone turned to me and said “no, that’s a tape, they’ve both collapsed.” It was in that moment that it really sunk in what had happened. There was a sinking feeling in my stomach. I began to cry. Fortunately, i’d find out later Rachel’s mom survived.

    Days later there were the missing flyers to contend with. They were everywhere. Some people’s faces, those who obviously lived in my neighborhood, you’d see so often you’d feel like you began to know. Walking around Manhattan in those first few weeks after, it was impossible not to think about those people all the time.

    Then there was the smell. A few days after the attacks the winds changed and the smoke began to blow north. It smelled awful. It didn’t really smell like any one thing, but it sort of smelled like burning plastic.

    Still, eventually things returned to normal. After a few weeks, the smoke cleared, the missing posters faded, we opened the blinds again and life moved on.

    And so it goes. That was some of my experience.

    Overall though, I can’t really say I felt any less safe after 9/11, because living in NY, i was concerned about terrorist attacks before 9/11. I guess for most of the country the attacks were a wake up call. But in NY, we were already awake. We knew we were a target even before 9/11. I had done a presentation in school on Osama bin Laden in the spring of 1999. We knew the threat was out there. But anyway, that’s that.

  9. Thanks very much. I’ve never read your blog before, but found this post via Towleroad.

  10. I just don’t understand why stories like the one you posted here are not published in local and national newspapers. It has always amazed me how we gays complain about what is happening to us here in the US but the only people we complain to are other gays, why not the straight family next door. It is these people that will really make or break our existance. You brought tears to my eyes in reading your article, please consider having it published in the Washington Post or other national newspapers.

    Thank you

    Tom & James
    Manassas, VA

  11. Whoa. Thanks so much for your astounding post. Your words and the images have affected me deeply. Not like on the day, really. Somehow, far more deeply as a gay, black man. I am saddened but enhanced by reading your post. Thank you for allowing me the chance to be both. Hang in there! Glad I read Towleroad this afternoon.

  12. Pingback: 9/12: 5 years later at Ramblings of a Hopeless Khowaga

  13. Thanks so much for sharing these stories of lives so tragically cut short and highlighting the ongoing difficulties faced by their surviving partners. A few lines from a favorite poem seem apt:

    From ‘For the Fallen’, Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

    They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning
    We will remember them.

  14. I am ashamed to admit that as an out and proud gay male flight attendant in a long term, committed relationship, this is the first time I have thought of the gay men and women who lost their lives on 9/11. The circumstances, the massive loss of human life, the greiving … it all transcended gender and sexuality for me. My ignorance disgusts me. This and the knowledge of the unbearable struggle (legal and otherwise) their surviving partners face makes it all the more painful. I didnt think that was possible. So many of us will face the same struggle. Many are dealing with this right now. Thank you for posting, you have not only honored those who passed and those who survived them, but brought me a whole new perspective and awareness. It’s made me feel together, apart, angry, sad, and alone all at once.

    MJ
    Sydney, Australia

  15. It is such a shame hat these people are so often overlooked. The man I have been dating for close to 2 years now lost his partner on 9/11. He was working in Windows on the World that tragic morning. While this is not talked about much with me, I know there have been struggles everytime there is an event….just to get a pass to attend a memorial event is a massive struggle because he is not considered family.

  16. After the 9/11 attacks, I remember reading the tragic story of Mike Lyons, on the Internet. He had lost his partner John Keohane, who died when the South Tower collapsed. Mike Lyons, who was partially disabled, and had depended on his partner to share the expenses of living in Manhattan (Battery park City as I recall). Mike applied for Social Security survivor benefits, but was turned down, since his relationship was not recognized by the Federal government. He was also turned down for benefits from the special Victim Compensation Fund, also a Federal program. On March 1, 2002, out of money and out of hope, he committed suicide on his 41st birthday. Ironically, if he had held on a little longer, he might have received benefits from a New York State crime victims fund.

    Federal law has not changed since 9/11. So much for slogans such as “We are all Americans”. This tragedy reminds me of the Winterhilf (winter relief) program administered by Nazi Germany in the late 1930′s. German Jews were specifically excluded since they were no longer considered real Germans. What about the equal protection rights granted by the US constitution? When it comes to gay Americans, separate and unequal is still the law of the land for all too many purposes, six years after 9/11.

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