Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Six years ago at the Pride Agenda

As we look back in solace on the events of September 11, 2001, Joe Tarver remembers what it was like to be in New York City on that day--and what the LGBT community did to make sure that surviving partners of same-sex relationships were not forgotten in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Six years ago today we all came together here in New York City, united by what had just happened down at the World Trade Center and determined to do what we had to do to bring some sense of normalcy back to the city we all loved.

Outside the Pride Agenda’s old offices on Hudson Street several blocks south of 14th Street, we could see the twin towers by standing across the street and looking south. Traffic that morning was not only gridlocked, it had stopped and everyone stood in the street and on the sidewalk looking south just watching. None of us imagined the towers would collapse until they did and even then it was difficult to accept what we had just witnessed.

Very soon most vehicular traffic was gone--completely gone--as the city had been shut down. And then the people showed up--large numbers of people--walking north from the financial district. They had on their business suits, some carried their shoes, they were covered by a thick coat of grey dust.

We gave them water and let them use our restroom. We did what everyone else was doing that day. We tried to comfort our fellow New Yorkers.

Very soon thereafter, however, it became clear the Pride Agenda and the LGBT community would be doing more. Matt Foreman, who was then the Pride Agenda Executive Director, sat down with me and we sketched out a plan for making sure LGBT people who had lost a loved one in the attacks would be taken care of in just the same way all other families were being helped.

One of the top priorities was determining whether the major relief groups would be treating our families in the same way they would be treating all other families. Another would be outreach to find those who had lost a partner in the attacks and, when finding them, to begin the advocacy that would be necessary with relief agencies and local and state government on their behalf.

I made the calls to the Red Cross and United Way to ask how they would be treating our families. I did receive generally positive feedback from both, but quickly realized they had no real conception about how to determine our families were in fact families. After all, those who can marry just needed to present a marriage license or say they were married and the process moved forward for them. Our families didn’t have such a magic piece of paper that would move the process forward for them.

To find those LGBT New Yorkers who had lost a loved one and to let them know assistance was available, Matt and I wrote the following message and sent it out through various email networks and had it posted on LGBT news sites. It said:
“If you or someone you know is gay or lesbian and was injured, killed, or otherwise harmed in the terrorist attacks on September 11, please know that there are public and private emergency funds available to provide relief from both short and long-term economic hardships you may be facing. (There are also many other free programs including counseling, childcare, emergency shelter, etc.)

Gay and lesbian survivors will face obstacles in obtaining equal benefits because of the lack of legal recognition of their families and relationships. Fortunately, a number of relief funds have already indicated that they will be taking an expansive definition of "family" and that lesbian and gay survivors will qualify. In addition, please know that there are LGBT social service and advocacy organizations in New York City and Washington, D.C. ready to help and advocate for survivors to obtain as equitable relief as possible, both in the public and private sectors. For instance in the New York City area, the Anti-Violence Project, 212-714-1184, is ready to help with applications for emergency funds, counseling and advocacy efforts.

If you need further information, assistance, and referrals, please call 212-627-0305, the Empire State Pride Agenda.”
Soon the calls started coming in and in collaboration with Lambda Legal, the New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and Stonewall Community Foundation we began a concerted, coordinated effort on behalf of the almost two dozen individuals that stepped forward from around the country to say they had lost their partners and needed help.

While there would be many challenges in the coming months advocating for these families, we would eventually be successful in getting our state and the Red Cross to craft policies that acknowledged and accounted for the difficulties our families would have in proving their relationships, given the absence of a relationship mechanism, like marriage, that other families had.

In the weeks after September 11 our community from across the country would also come together and contribute tens of thousands of dollars to a fund we helped set up to take care of these LGBT surviving family members.

In light of these stories, the national press wrote about “what is family” and how family is recognized in America. On September 11 and for many days and weeks afterwards, we were all family here in New York City--LGBT, straight or otherwise. And I believe a good majority of New Yorkers still feel this way.

On September 11, New Yorkers found support and strength from each other. For me, it is an intense, shared bond that I will always carry with me.

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