By Asjylyn Loder
Thursday, September 11, 2003
As the nation learns to tell the story of Sept. 11, 2001, two groups--female rescue workers and surviving same-sex partners--are struggling to be included in that narrative.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Over the past two years, since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the nation has learned to tell a story of itself, a story of grief and unity, of challenges met, of heroism, courage and fortitude. It is a story that has bound the nation together, a powerful real-life parable that illustrates an emerging new national identity.
For some, however--female rescue workers and surviving same--sex domestic partners--grief and loss have been compounded by a sense of being shut out of this story, and out of the benefits, recognition and sympathy accorded to other survivors. As the nation observes a day dedicated to remembrance and survival, these groups struggle to rekindle the fleeting sense of unity and compassion that characterized the days immediately after the attacks, and to remind the nation that they were also there.
"September eleventh was one of those instances that humanized this issue in a very profound way," said Ross Levi, legislative counsel with the Empire State Pride Agenda in a telephone interview from the organization's Albany office. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, same-sex partners whose spouses perished in the attacks were left in legal limbo without the benefit of the legal marriage rights which Levi's organization champions. "Our challenge has been to get that right thinking and apply it in a general context, that our families have the same needs on September 11, 2003, as they did on September 11th, 2001," he said.
When the names of those lost are read at Ground Zero, Jeff Collman's will be among them. Collman, a flight attendant who died aboard American Airlines flight 11, is survived by his same-sex partner, Keith Bradkowski. Last week, Bradkowski testified before a Senate subcommittee hearing on banning same-sex civil marriage rights, wondering what had become of the inclusion that characterized the nation immediately after the attacks.
"Two years ago we were all united against the common threat of terrorism," he testified. "Now, less than two years later, I am sitting here and being told that my relationship was a threat to our country."
"The terrorists who attacked this country killed people not because they were gay or straight--but because they were Americans," said Bradkowski in his testimony. "It is heart wrenching that our own government does not protect its citizens equally, gay and straight, simply because they are Americans."
Bradkowski is on the verge of submitting a petition for compensation to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, according to his attorney, Jennifer Pizer, senior staff attorney with Lambda Legal, the New York-based organization that represents many of the surviving same-sex partners of Sept. 11 victims.
Bradkowski's sentiments mirror the response of many who found in the brief sense of unity after the attacks the sort of acceptance and compassion that now eludes them.
"It's shocking that two years ago that the country was so united, really giving credence to the idea that 'United We Stand,'" said Mark Shields, spokesperson for Human Rights Campaign in a telephone interview from his Washington, D.C. office. "Now it is two years later and we do see some people really lashing out against the gay community."
Immediately after Sept. 11, New York State took several steps to make sure that the estimated 20 surviving same-sex domestic partners of Sept. 11 victims could access benefits. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki, both Republicans, supported extending benefits to same-sex partners, and state legislators from both parties overwhelmingly supported those initiatives.
Without the legal provisions of marriage, surviving partners faced losing homes and businesses that they had shared. Bradkowski testified that just getting a death certificate for Collman was extremely difficult. He was forced to produce proof that their relationship existed. Since few states recognize domestic partners as the next of kin, few partners could claim benefits under the variety of state and federal compensation programs or petition for assistance through special funds set up for the families of those who perished on Sept. 11.
Last March, Peggy Neff was the first same-sex surviving partner to receive money from the federal victim's compensation fund. Neff lost her partner of 18 years, Sheila Hein, in the attack on the Pentagon. Neff was awarded $557,390. It was the first time a same-sex domestic partner had been awarded federal money in such a case, Neff's lawyer, Jennifer Middleton of Lambda Legal, told The Advocate.
In addition to Hein, several other women killed on that day left behind same-sex partners, including Carol Flyzik, Pamela J. Boyce, Catherine Smith, Patricia McAneney, Waleska Martinez and Renee Barrett. There is no precise count of the number of gays or lesbians killed in the attacks, but approximately 20 surviving same-sex partners sought Lambda Legal's help in filing for benefits. It is not known how many surviving same-sex partners have received benefits so far.
For women who responded to the Sept. 11 attacks as firefighters and police officers, the acknowledgment of their lost brethren has dredged up feelings both of grief and ongoing exclusion. New York's female firefighters--only 0.2 percent of the nearly 11,000 member force--and police officers listened as the media and politicians hailed the bravery of "firemen" and "policemen," feeling as though their own efforts responding to the attacks and their own losses had been discounted.
"It left women out of the national conversation about the role that women played on that day," said Susan Hagen, firefighter and co-author of "Women at Ground Zero." "If this is a day of mourning, and we're recognizing our heroes, then let's recognize all of them," she said in a telephone interview.
The unprecedented levels of national sympathy and support for the Fire Department of New York make it even more difficult to criticize the growing gender gap within the department without appearing to piggyback special interests on a national tragedy.
Currently, only 21 women serve out of the 10,751 firefighters in the New York Fire Department. Of those, several are eligible for retirement. Only one woman has graduated from the Fire Academy since Sept. 11. On Monday, a new class of 300 enters the academy. Of those, four are women.
In honor of the death of officer Moira Smith, the only female New York City police officer killed on Sept. 11, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the police officer's union, considered changing its name the gender-neutral term "Police Benevolent Association." That name has not been changed.
Two other women, Yamel Merino, an emergency medical technician, and Captain Kathy Mazza of the Port Authority Police Academy, were killed responding to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We have to learn to include women in these definitions of hero," said Maureen McFadden, spokesperson for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. The New York-based fund produced a short video highlighting the roles of women working at Ground Zero on Sept. 11 and in the immediate aftermath.
The fund also began a "Women Rebuild New York/Women Rebuild America" initiative to ensure that female professionals are represented in the reconstruction of lower Manhattan.
"The spotlight is as much on the rebuilding of this of this site as it was on the destruction," said McFadden in a telephone interview. "This should be a model of inclusion. It should be a model workplace," she said, saying that young women need to see role models in the high-paying, non-traditional jobs for women such as law enforcement, firefighting and construction.
"How long do they have to be on the job before people stop saying women can't do these jobs?" McFadden asked.
Asjylyn Loder is a freelance writer in New York.
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