Many in the LGBTQ community throughout the country were expected to join their friends, neighbors, and family members this week in commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the New York World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and on the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., as well as a hijacking that ended with a crash in Shanksville, Pa.
Activists involved with local and national LGBTQ advocacy organizations have said they recall a coming together of LGBTQ people and their co-workers, neighbors, and family members to support one another during a time of unimaginable horror and grief.
A total of 2,996 people died in the 9/11 attacks, including 19 terrorists who hijacked four jetliners whose passengers included Americans and citizens of 78 countries, according to history.com.
“The gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities and those living with HIV/AIDS have worked diligently to overcome other forms of evil, whether it be bigotry or violence,” said A. Cornelius Baker, who at the time was executive director of D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Clinic, in a statement during the week of the 9/11 attacks.
“And we will stand side by side with our fellow Americans and our fellow citizens of the world to do everything we can to overcome this new threat to humanity,” Baker said
For many LGBTQ residents of New York and the D.C. area, the suffering over the loss of loved ones, including same-sex partners, was heightened a short time later when they learned they were initially ineligible for local and federal programs aimed at providing financial assistance to survivors of the victims of the 9/11 attacks because same-sex partners were not legally recognized.
At the urging of LGBTQ rights organizations, state, and local officials in New York and the D.C. area took steps to address the initial denial of financial support for surviving same-sex partners in programs under their control. Officials with a massive, multi-million-dollar federal aid program for 9/11 survivors, however, said they did not have legal authority to authorize payments to same-sex partners.
The officials, in the administration of President George W. Bush, said the best they could do would be to leave it up to local authorities to determine whether state probate laws would recognize a same-sex partner as a family member for eligibility in the federal aid program for 9/11 survivors, many of whom lived in states outside New York and the D.C. area.
Among those who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks was American Airlines co-pilot David Charlebois, an out gay man and member of the National Gay Pilots Association, who was on American Airlines Flight 77, which the terrorists crashed into the Pentagon.
Also among the terrorists’ victims in the 9/11 attacks was public relations executive and rugby enthusiast Mark Bingham of San Francisco, who contacted his mother by cell phone shortly before the United Airlines jet he was taking from Newark, N.J. to San Francisco crashed into the countryside in western Pennsylvania.
Surviving family members of other passengers on that flight have said they too were called by their loved ones who told them some of the passengers were planning an attempt to somehow regain control of the jet from the terrorists.
Bingham’s mother, Alice Hoagland, who at the time was a United Airlines flight attendant, said she believed her son joined other passengers to prevent the terrorists from carrying out what authorities said was their plan to crash the jet into the U.S. Capitol or possibly the White House. She said her son’s reputation as a fighter for civic justice, along with a past episode where he fought off muggers, led her to believe he was among those who foiled the terrorists’ plans to fly the jet to Washington.
An investigation into the 9/11 attacks by a federal 9/11 commission later found that flight data recordings from the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93, where Bingham was among 44 people aboard, showed that one of the four hijackers who took control of the jetliner shortly after its takeoff responded to an attempt by passengers to storm the cockpit by deliberately steering the plane into a downward direction at about 500 miles per hour, causing it to crash into an empty field near the town of Shanksville in western Pennsylvania at 10:10 a.m. All 44 people were killed.
“The fact that he was so close to the action, it is likely that he was able to get at these guys,” Hoagland told the Associated Press. “It gives me a great deal of comfort to know my son may have been able to avert the killing of many, many innocent people,” she said.
Hoagland became an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights and for the gay rugby teams that Mark Bingham helped to create in the years after her son’s death. She died on Dec. 22, 2020, of natural causes at the age of 71 at her home in Los Gatos, Calif., according to the Associated Press.
Longtime LGBTQ rights advocate Jay Fisette, who at the time of the 9/11 attacks held the elected position of chair of the Arlington County Board, which serves as the county’s governing body, was among the Arlington officials that came to the Pentagon’s grounds to oversee efforts by Arlington firefighters to rescue Pentagon workers on the day of the attack.
Fisette noted that the Pentagon is in Arlington County, and it was largely the county’s firefighters and emergency medical teams that put out the fire caused by the jetliner crash and provided medical assistance to survivors of the crash.
At an Oct. 7, 2001, 9/11 Day of Remembrance and Appreciation ceremony held in Arlington, Fisette expressed the views of many in the community in response to the 9/11 attacks.
“Tonight, our community gathers as a family,” he told the gathering. “We gather in sorrow and in disbelief, in remembrance and appreciation,” he said. “But we come here, too, with resolve and pride. We come together as Arlingtonians who love our county, as Americans who love our country,” he said.
“Our enemies may hurt our bodies and destroy our buildings, but they will never defeat our determination to make this a world of peace and a community in which our children grow up safe and secure,” Fisette told participants at the gathering.
Although some of the same-sex partners of those killed in the 9/11 attacks faced obstacles in obtaining financial support through the federal 9/11 relief program, Tom Hay, the surviving partner of 14 years of American Airlines pilot David Charlebois was treated with respect and honor by American Airlines officials and colleagues at Charlebois’ funeral mass at D.C.’s St. Matthews Cathedral.
More than a dozen uniformed company pilots and flight attendants attended the mass. In a news release issued in June of this year, American Airlines mentions Charlebois’ relationship with Hay and tells how Hay stood with Charlebois when Charlebois pushed for equal rights for LGBTQ people in the airline industry through his involvement with the National Gay Pilots Association.
“David was an early member of the NGPA,” the American Airlines statement says. “His contribution helped ensure ongoing progress toward fairness and solidarity,” it says.
Activists in New York have said the 9/11 attacks drew attention to the need for legal protections for same-sex couples, including the need for legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
Ros Levi, who in 2001 served as executive director of the New York LGBTQ advocacy group Empire State Pride Agenda, or ESPA, said his group became aware that same-sex partner survivors were being treated differently when New York City and private relief agencies like the Red Cross set up an emergency station on a pier along the Hudson River. The station was intended to help people find a family member missing and as yet unaccounted for in the World Trade Center carnage.
“Literally, [gay] people had to go there, turn around, go back home, and get some paperwork that spouses didn’t have to get to prove a relationship existed,” Levi told the Washington Blade in 2011 when the Blade reported on the 10-year anniversary events related to the 9/11 attacks.
“You were nervous and scared and sad and then you had to go through that,” Levi said. “And worse, other people turned them away, even with the paperwork, saying sorry you’re not a family according to our guidelines.”
Activists said New York City and New York State officials quickly recognized the inequities faced by same-sex partner survivors and took steps to change policies and laws to correct the situation. Among other things, activists were pleased when New York’s then GOP Gov. George Pataki issued an executive order in October 2001 that included surviving partners of gay and lesbian victims of the World Trade Center attacks in receiving full spousal benefits from the state’s Crime Victims Board.
The New York State Legislature soon took its own action by approving three separate bills that included same-sex partner survivors in various state benefits to be allocated to 9/11 survivors and their families.
“The grief and loss were the same between heterosexual and same-sex couples, and a perception of this seemed to come through to much of the public,” said Jennifer Pizer, the then senior counsel for the LGBTQ litigation group Lambda Legal.
In a separate development, Lambda Legal, ESPA, the Human Rights Campaign and other LGBTQ advocacy groups created the September 11 Gay & Lesbian Family Fund to provide some support to surviving same-sex partners who were ineligible for help from the federal relief fund program.
“The Family Fund was established in December  to help offset the discrimination gay and lesbian partners faced in obtaining benefits automatically afforded to surviving spouses, including Social Security and Workers Compensation survivor benefits and compensation under the Federal 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund,” ESPA said in a statement.
Among the other gay people known to have lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks was Father Mychal Judge, 68, a Franciscan priest who served as a Catholic chaplain for the New York City Fire Department. According to the National Catholic Reporter, Judge rushed to the scene of the World Trade Center to assist firefighters shortly before the Twin Towers collapsed. He was fatally struck by debris falling from the south tower while giving last rites to a fallen firefighter, the Catholic publication reported this week.
“He was a decent, wonderful human being,” said New York gay journalist Andy Humm, who had interviewed Judge for LGBT related stories prior to the 9/11 attacks. “When gays were kept out of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, he gave me an interview on the street telling me how terrible it was for us to be discriminated against and for the church to be doing it,” Humm told the Blade.
“I saw him at many demonstrations for gay and AIDS causes, showing up in his Franciscan monk’s cassock,” said Humm. “And he was equally beloved by the Fire Department, there at every major fire tragedy in the city, lending moral support to firefighters.”
New Ways Ministries, the Maryland based LGBTQ Catholic group that advocates for LGBTQ supportive policies within the church, has announced it is reaching out to other faith-based organizations, asking them to form an association to call on the Catholic Church to officially recognize Fr. Judge as a saint by canonizing him.
Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministries’ executive director, has written a biography of Judge, which the group says will be published in March 2022 by Liturgical Press, one of the larger Catholic publishers.
A gay couple from California, Daniel Brandhorst and Ronald Gamboa, and their adopted son, David Brandhorst, were among those who died aboard the United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. The Los Angeles Times reported that Brandhorst, a lawyer and Gamboa, the manager of a Santa Monica Gap store, had adopted 3-year-old David when he was an infant.