Not All Survivors Are Created Equal

News & Politics

John Aravosis is mad as hell. But, unlike Howard Beale, the news anchor in the movie, "Network," Aravosis is not going to the nearest open window and sticking his head out and yelling "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" He is too media wise and Internet savvy to do that.

In March 2000, Aravosis and a few friends set up to convince Paramount not to air the upcoming "Dr. Laura" TV show. The site was a huge hit. In an email Aravosis told me: "As a result of the 60 million hits this pro bono site received in just 10 months, and the 300,000 visitors per month we continued to get throughout the campaign, we organized over 31 protests in cities across the country and Canada; more than 150 advertisers dropped [the] show, including some 70 or so advertisers that Canadian activists got to drop her in that country alone! And over 30 advertisers dropped her radio show costing her nearly $30 million on the radio show alone!

"In addition, the entire nation of Canada canceled the TV show completely, and TV stations across America started dropping Laura Schlessinger like a hot potato, or banishing her to the wee morning hours, until she was finally canceled just before April Fool's day, 2001. All this on an $18,000 budget, raised mostly from the online sale of t-shirts."

Aravosis is now raising his voice on behalf of equity and justice for the families of gay and lesbian victims of September 11.

Feinberg Rules

Kenneth Feinberg, the Special Master of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, laid out the Administration's position regarding the families of gay and lesbian victims of 9/11 on the March 10 edition of NBC's "Meet the Press":

"[Gays and lesbians are] left out of my program to the extent that their own state doesn't include them. I cannot get into a position in this program, which has a one-and-a-half or two-year life, [and] start second-guessing what the state of New York or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or the state of Virginia or New Jersey, how they treat same-sex partners, domestic live-ins, etc. I simply say this: What does your state law say about who is eligible? If your state law makes you eligible, I will honor state law. If it doesn't, I go with the state. Otherwise, Tim, I would find myself getting sued in every state by people claiming that I'm not following how the state distributes money. I can't get into that local battle. I've got to rely on state law."

Stick with me here. This is going to get a little complicated. Aravosis says that Feinberg's explanation is basic Washingtonese -- a little misleading. "In layman's terms, the money goes to the estate of the Sept. 11 deceased, and state law dictates how that money goes to a family. If the deceased had a will, and the will designated the partner as getting a portion of the estate, they're covered. But most people in America do not have wills. That's why they have to rely on state law. And almost no state recognizes the gay partner of the deceased.

"In fact, even in some states that recognize domestic partners who register, like California, if you don't have a will, your gay partner will still not get any money from your estate. As there are only three states that in any way recognize such partners -- California, Vermont, and Hawaii, as well as Washington DC -- I have been told by lawyers representing gay and lesbian survivors that they expect some survivors will not get benefits. The state of Virginia, for example, has already sent a letter to the 18-year partner of one woman who [died] in the Pentagon that as her 'friend' she won't see a dime."

In essence, in a rather complicated and convoluted decision, families of gays and lesbians will not be given federal compensation unless they have wills, or the states they live in have laws recognizing domestic partnerships, which of course most states do not.

Given Feinberg's pronouncement, the president's much vaunted "compassionate conservatism," seems more like "dispassionate convolution." In many cases, the life partners of gay and lesbian victims of 9/11 will be getting screwed.

Honoring All The Dead

Some of the names of those killed have become familiar to most Americans over the past six months: Mark Bingham, the Bay Area-based man who helped bring down United Airlines Flight 93 over Pennsylvania; New York Fire Department Chaplain Mychel Judge, who rushed to do his duty and died when the first tower collapsed; and David Charlebois, who was co-pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

The names of many of the other gay and lesbians victims are not so well known. Some names may never be known.

At its website, the Victim Compensation Fund opened a page for public comments. It began receiving comments on March 7, but it wasn't until March 11, however, that many of those writing began to focus specifically on the decision around benefits to the families of gays and lesbians. According to Aravosis, early in the week, "they got 8 comments in one day, then 350 in a day, then 650 in a day. And that's only up to Wednesday of last week. The comments are really quite telling, and in a way kind of newsworthy themselves -- they're rather beautiful in and of themselves."

Here is a small sampling:

"I have read conflicting accounts of whether same sex partners will receive death benefits from the deaths of their partners. Although many states do not legally recognize these relationships, these TAX PAYING people have gone through a horrific ordeal and deserve the same benefits that every other victim is receiving from the 9-11 fund. To prevent these people from doing so would be an exercise of horrible cruelty worthy of the Taliban. -- Mission Viejo, CA

"Lesbian and gay people are full citizens of this country and deserve to be treated as such. One of our own has been lionized as a hero for his role in the crash of the jet in western Pennsylvania. But if he had a domestic partner, someone whom he would have married had the U.S. government recognized the sanctity of his relationship, I guess that man would have to be satisfied with press clippings and sound bites, while his heterosexual peers, even the illegal aliens among them, were being compensated financially for lost wages and pain. This is horrifying. Shame on you all, and shame on Kenneth Feinberg, John Ashcroft and George W. Bush in particular, for failing to equally and fairly honor and respect ALL the victims of this terrible tragedy." -- Brooklyn, NY

"The rhetoric of 'whatever the law is in your state will apply' is a ridiculous cop-out and a pitiful attempt to shift any blame for such a policy from the governing bodies directly involved to the State of the victim. The many gay and lesbian victims, heroes, and their families and loved ones are no less affected by this tragedy, regardless of who they love. God forbid a young person looks to, or as a role model of what a true hero is, because according to the Government of the United States of America, they are nothing. To call ourselves United States is blasphemy...apparently we're only United when it's convenient and doesn't pose a problem to some politician's public image. To say that you represent, love and honor America...SHAME, SHAME, SHAME." -- Chicago, IL

'It's not over until it's over'

Unfortunately Feinberg's decision is final. As Aravosis says, the March 21 deadline "is simply for public comment on the final rule that has already been implemented. We are already toast. The Department of Justice's final rule," he adds, "de facto codifies discrimination against gay people in the distribution of the fund."

Nevertheless, it is important to continue to make your voice heard loud and clear. In Washington, it is rare that things are ever really over. If there is going to be any future changes, it will have to come from Congress. According to Aravosis, "Congress can amend the law, but they have to have the political will to help all the heroes of September 11, rather than just a portion."

Contact information for the September 11 Fund: Fax- 301-519-5956 (faxes should be limited to 15 pages) Phone: 888-714-3385

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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