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.

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It didn't, for example, mean that she was able to get immediate death benefits from the State of Virginia, which told her in a letter: "We regret to inform you that you are not eligible to file a claim for benefits under the Virginia Victims of Crime Act." Unlike New York state, where Governor George M. Pataki issued an executive order declaring that same-sex domestic partners have the same rights as other spouses who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, Virginia's then-Gov. Jim Gilmore was unresponsive to appeals on Neff's behalf. "A few courts have begun to see that marriage-based distinctions discriminate against same-sex couples," says Lambda's Middleton. "Virginia isn't there yet."

Pataki's order was necessary because New York isn't there yet either. A 1997 court decision explicitly declared same-sex partners different from married spouses under the terms of the Crime Victims Fund. Pataki's order, however, declared gay partners equal to heterosexual widows and widowers for the purposes of compensation related to Sept. 11 and modified future requirements so that partners of crime victims no longer have to show that the partner--including unmarried domestic partners--provided 75 percent of family income. "Married people don't have to show any percentage," says Joe Tarvo of Empire State Pride Agenda, which worked with Pataki on his executive order. "For September 11, neither do domestic partners."

Special Master Feinberg Has Enormous Discretion

Although Virginia now has a new governor, Mark Warner, Neff is not interested in pursuing her case with the state any further. She's concentrating on her upcoming, crucial meetings with Feinberg, the overseer of the federal Victim Compensation Fund. Feinberg is a surprising appointee for John Ashcroft; he was a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy in the late 1970s and helped move forward several high-profile legal cases, the asbestos cases, the Dalkon Shield and Shoreham class-action lawsuits among them And Neff has complete faith in Feinberg: "He's the right one to head this committee, regardless of how my situation turns out."

The interim rules for the federal fund "provide for some discretion on the part of the hearing officers, but the rules are not as explicit regarding same-sex partners as we would like," says Lambda's Middleton. Lambda is pressing until the last minute for changes, while Chris Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, which has worked with Neff most closely, says simply, "We have hopes for the enormous amount of discretion given to" Feinberg.

Neff, however, is not waiting to see what the rules say: She's working on getting the most convincing package possible to present to Feinberg. Her task, as she sees it, is to convince Feinberg that after 17 years with Hein, "She really was the love of my life--and I was a spouse." The difference in benefits, she says, is about $400,000; the difference in recognition of her relationship is immeasurable.

In the meantime, although she's not yet ready to become an activist for recognition of gay partnerships, Neff has found herself a national figure in a movement she's been wary to enter. She's been invited to San Francisco by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, where she plans to talk about the absolute necessity for lesbians to take action to protect their relationships. "I'm becoming a one-note band," she says. "This is my new job: to tell people, 'Make a will!'"

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Chris Lombardi is a free-lance writer in New York. She coordinated Women's Enews Fall 2000 election coverage and helped cover the Beijing + 5 conference on women. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine, the Progressive and Inside MS.

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