Lesbian and Transgender

Partners of Sept. 11 Victims Denied Compensation

Saturday, January 19, 2002

Since the death of Peggy Neff's partner in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon, Neff and other gay partners of victims have found themselves fighting for recognition and compensation.

Sheila Hein and Peggy Neff

(WOMENSENEWS)--"I feel like I've just come right out of a closet and over a cliff," Peggy Neff says of her life since Sept. 11.

Before that day, Neff was quietly studying for her real estate examination, in the Hyattsville, Md., home she shared with Sheila Hein, her partner of over 17 years. "I'd just given notice at my job," she says, intending to rely on the income of her partner, a former Army photographer in a civilian job at the Pentagon, to cover the bills while she built her business.

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.

The September 11 Victim Compensation Fund was set up shortly after the disaster as part of the law called Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act, and the fund is designated to compensate the "spouses, children, and other relatives" of those killed in the attacks. The fund is to use a formula that includes a flat fee for "pain and suffering" and the presumed lost income of the deceased, based on their earning capacity. In order to be eligible for the funds, claimants must waive their legal right to sue the U.S. government. The interim rules have come under fire for the proposed aid formulas, which would reduce awards to survivors who have already received life insurance or substantial post-Sept. 11 aid from other agencies.

For Neff and the two dozen other lesbian and gay survivors who have come forward, the issue is whether they will be recognized as "spouses." As executor of her partner's estate, Neff qualifies as the "personal representative" as defined by the law, but the law goes on to state that personal representatives are mandated to distribute the funds to the "spouse, children or other relatives." Thus Neff could receive the funds and be directed to give them to Hein's mother.

The final rules will be published on Tuesday. It is not known if the Justice Department will include specific recognition of relationships such as the one enjoyed by Peggy Neff and Sheila Hein. While the State of New York has agreed to recognize same-sex partners, the state of Virginia has not, leaving Pentagon survivors such as Neff behind.

Pair Met After Military Service

Between the two of them, Hein and Neff served more than 10 years in the military, both as photographers for the U.S. Navy. In those days, she says, "don't ask, don't tell" wasn't yet the rule: "It was more like 'Don't even hint.'" They didn't meet until after their tours of duty, when Neff was complaining about her first post-military job in 1983. "I said, 'They don't pay me enough,' and she said 'Come on over to this side, and we'll pay you enough.' The rest is history."

Within six months, they'd moved in together. Over the years they bought a house together and took most of the legal steps needed to obtain rights analogous to heterosexual married couples, securing powers of attorney for health care and making Hein the beneficiary on Neff's life insurance. Most critically, they made out simple wills, naming one another sole inheritor and executor of the other's estate. "That's my saving grace now," Neff says.

Hein's will is what separates Neff from many of the same-sex domestic partners now seeking help after Sept. 11, says Jennifer Middleton staff attorney of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is working with over a dozen such survivors. "Peggy Neff is in a decent position because she's the executor of her partner's estate," Middleton says. "But that doesn't mean at the end of the day that she'll get the money."

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