Relief efforts extend to gay survivors

Relief efforts extend to gay survivors

SUMMARY: Surviving partners of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are eligible for financial support from several relief agencies.

Gay and lesbian partners of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are eligible for financial support from relief agencies, and East Coast advocacy groups are rushing to make sure they get it.

« It’s important that survivors know the community is there to advocate and fight for them, » said Matt Foreman, executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, which is asking agencies for written policies about domestic partner benefits.

Foreman estimates that there may be at least 40 survivors whose partners were killed in the World Trade Center attack. The Empire State organization and the Human Rights Campaign bought ads in the Washington Blade and New York Blade newspapers this week to let readers know about the available benefits.

« For most gay and lesbian survivors, their automatic reaction is that they won’t be eligible for these kinds of funds because their family has no recognition, » said Joe Tarver, spokesman for Empire State Gay Agenda.

« We’re trying to reach out and tell them there are relief funds that are going to consider an expanded definition of family, » Tarver said. « If you’re having a hard time paying your rent if your partner died and was a primary breadwinner, we want people to know that assistance is out there. »

Several of the most eulogized victims of the attacks were gay. Mark Bingham, a 31-year-old public relations executive, may have helped overpower hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside. And the Rev. Mychal Judge, the openly gay Catholic chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, was killed by debris as he gave last rites to a victim.

According to media reports, at least five gay men died on the flights that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon , including one of the pilots.

The American Red Cross , which has raised more than $200 million for disaster relief, is sending checks to surviving victims and the families of those who died. The Red Cross will not discriminate against gays, said spokesman Chris Thomas.

« We’re trying to be as open as possible, and if someone is a domestic partner we will honor that, » Thomas said. « We want to make sure that we honor with dignity each person we serve. »

Thomas said the Red Cross would investigate any claims of mistreatment of gays by staff members.

Another major relief agency, the United Way, is sending donations to Safe Horizons, a New York City victims services organization, Foreman said. Safe Horizons has indicated that it will give relief to domestic partners, he said.

Gay surviving partners are not eligible for Social Security or workers’ compensation benefits because they were not married to the victims.

While relief officials say they’re willing to work with gay survivors, they don’t have written policies in place to guarantee assistance, Foreman said.

« This is not the first disaster in the country, » he added, « and we should not have to be facing these issues because of this disaster. It provides a sad opportunity for us to leverage change. »

People who need financial assistance as a direct result of the attacks should call the New York-based Antiviolence Project at 212-714-1184 or the Stonewall Community Foundation at 646-230-6999. The foundation is also accepting donations for a gay relief fund.

Anyone having trouble getting assistance should call Empire State Pride Agenda at 212-627-0305 or the Human Rights Campaign at 202-628-4160.