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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 2, 2002
The tragedy of Sept. 11 continues to teach us volumes about our national character. We have affirmed some trends and traits that are sources of pride, while we also are discovering and facing others that reveal our fragility and intolerance.
Nowhere is this more evident than with our humane, yet controversial, treatment of gay men and lesbians who lost partners on that horrible day. Many fair-minded people in charge of compensating people who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, including New York Gov. George Pataki, are working hard to award substantial sums of money to these same-sex partners.
Kenneth Feinberg, special master of the Sept. 11 Compensation Fund, said Pataki's executive order to the State Crime Victims Board extending spousal benefits to gay partners made the compensation possible. Bereaved families and individuals related to heterosexual victims have had little trouble collecting cash awards after completing routine paperwork.
But gay and lesbian survivors have faced hostility and rejection.
Feinberg, who now has more freedom to dispense funds because of Pataki's order, said so far only 22 known gay surviving partners of the terror attacks have filed claims. Each case faces at least one major hurdle: winning the blessing of the next of kin.
"If the next of kin is supportive and there's no dispute, it's a non-issue," Feinberg said. "If the personal representative, say a parent, comes to me and says, "Cut a check for the same-sex partner,' there will be no problem. Then it's a ministerial function."
The immediate problem, of course, is that many of 22 surviving gay partners have been rejected by the next of kin. Some of the couples had lived together for more than 15 years before the twin towers fell. Feinberg said he will use all the discretion allowed to assist surviving gay partners rejected by the next of kin.
Regrettably, the movement to compensate same-sex partners, especially longtime ones, have some New York Republican state representatives in a huff. They turned back a senate measure that would have given death benefits to the survivors and the estates of nine gay public safety officers who perished in the line of duty on Sept. 11.
Remember, these gay victims died in the line of duty.
The New York Times reports that the most hateful objection to helping same-sex surviving partners comes from Christian-backed conservative groups such as Louis Sheldon's California-based Traditional Values Coalition. Sheldon was quoted as having said that funds should be going "to those widows who were home with their babies." He added that government should ignore people "capitalizing on a national tragedy to promote their homosexual agenda."
In Sheldon's warped view, the Rev. Mychal Judge, the gay New York fire chaplain who died, lived a worthless life. His death is less important than that of a heterosexual. Forget that before his death, Judge had comforted other widows and their children who had lost husbands and fathers in the line of duty.
In addition to their hatred of gay people, conservatives fear that awarding money to same-sex surviving partners will open the door to legalizing gay marriages. I do not believe anyone has to worry about gay marriage being legalized in the near future (not in my lifetime), because the majority of Americans oppose it, and few elected officials in either party have the courage to challenge public opinion.
I am encouraged, though, that most Americans approve of individual spousal benefits to same-sex partners. Unfortunately, only Hawaii and Vermont have legalized such benefits.
The World Trade Center example may not be replicated anywhere else in the country anytime soon, but I hope Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Poll, which studies same-self issues, is right: "(The New York City) example does change the political climate and it's hard to imagine totally turning back the clock."
Perhaps here in my home state of Florida, we will become enlightened and pass a bill that gives death benefits to surviving gay domestic partners -- even when the next of kin disagrees.