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Surviving Terrorism
How surviving same-sex partners are fairing
in the aftermath of September 11, 2001

© January 16, 2011, Demian


• “God, I miss that woman.”
      - Peg Neff, interview in the Washington Post, Nov. 25, 2001

• “It was hard to change the shaving cream that was almost done, because he had bought it.”
      - David O’Leary, interviewed by Bill Ghent, National Journal, Jan. 12, 2002

• “Everything we did, we did with love. He’ll always be my best friend. I feel very protected by him. And I always did.”
      - George Cuellar, interviewed by Indrani Sen, Newsday, Oct. 30, 2001

• “He was my sun and my moon. He was the one who rocked my world. He was also a clumsy big-mouth. He was a human being.”
      - Frank Coppola, interview by Kevin Rennie, Hartford Courant, Feb. 23, 2003

Nothing highlights the vulnerability of same-sex couples so dramatically as the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Because same-sex couples are denied access to legal marriage, they are also denied a next-of-kin status. This status provides a support base and addresses family issues in times of tragedy or upheaval.

This lack of legitimacy creates roadblocks that can have devastating emotional and financial effects. For instance, some surviving partners have reported that they could not get any word if their partner was dead or alive. Others could not claim their partner’s death benefits. Many are now being denied access to the government’s compensation fund.

While some unmarried, opposite-sex couples may be able to utilize so-called “common-law marriage” to prove their kinship, this status is only available in a handful of states — not in the states most directly impacted by the terrorist attack, California, New York, and Virginia — and have never recognized same-sex couples.
      [Please see our article: Common-Law Marriage States]

Same-sex couples are part of the tapestry of families that exist. Of the more than 3,000 victims, the families include, not only same-sex couples, but at least one man who had two wives, married couples with out-of-wedlock children, and many couples that were divorced and remarried.

While the varied family structures affected by the terrorist attack reflect the remarkable diversity of American society, they also highlight how slow the government is in recognizing these family constellations as it sifts through claims for compensation and inheritances.

Simply put, the law, and its ability to recognize human needs, does not conform to family structure realities. Couples without access to legal marriage live in a legal limbo.

Relief Agencies

The relief agencies have shown wide-ranging attitudes in their approach to the status of same-sex couples. Some have been responsive, some have had to be prodded, others have ignored same-sex couples altogether.

Private relief agencies, including the Red Cross, United Way, and Safe Horizon, have provided assistance based on need, not marital status. Some of the World Trade Center corporations, like Cantor Fitzgerald and Lehman Brothers, have extended benefits to same-sex partners.

Gov. George E. Pataki signed an executive order to cover same-sex partners under the state’s Crime Victims Board, which pays funeral costs, and up to $30,000 for lost income.

A bill designed to help surviving partners in same-sex relationships unanimously passed both houses of the New York State Legislature on May 6, 2002. The “September 11th Victims and Families Relief Act” contains language that specifies the Legislature’s desire that surviving same-sex partners be eligible for federal funds. It also makes federal aid exempt from state taxes and clarifies workers’ compensation eligibility.

Virginia’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund has completely denied compensation to same-sex relationship survivors.

In the end, these funds depend largely on the administrator’s openhearted generosity, not on any well-mapped legal status. A status that would be available if same-sex couples were allowed legal marriage.


Since adopting guidelines to provide relief for surviving partners of same-sex couples in the Sept. 11 attacks, the American Red Cross has now applied the measures to all of its disaster services programs. Their July 29, 2002 bulletin, distributed to Red Cross chapters, spells out the criteria for defining and verifying family members who qualify for assistance in the wake of a disaster. “Significant others” and “housemates” can be considered immediate family if they can verify joint property ownership, bank accounts, utility bills or domestic partner registration.

The Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), New York’s gay and lesbian civil rights organization, advocated for the initial changes, and its leaders lobbied NYC Council members, two of whom petitioned the Red Cross to make the Sept. 11 guidelines permanent. The Red Cross could be among the first national relief agencies to provide detailed policies and procedures on how to respect and verify same-sex relationships for the purpose of determining eligibility for disaster assistance.

Federal Funds

The Federal “September 11 Victims Compensation Fund” regulations allow for same-sex domestic partners, however, qualification depends upon having a will, and on the state laws where they couple resided.

In order to be eligible for the funds, claimants must waive their legal right to sue the United States government. By March 6, 2002, only 353 families signed up, so the benefit amounts where raised in hopes of attracting more signatories.

The final rules, announced on March 7, 2002, increased the average award amount to approximately $1.85 million (from $200,000) for victims’ families. And, families of those killed or injured within 72 hours (up from 24 hours) of the attack could claim benefits.

But it appears there was no interested in attracting more same-sex households. The rules leave eligibility for funds up to state law interpretation, which nearly universally treats same-sex couples without a will as complete legal strangers.

Because of the state law ruling, many individual cases will need to go in front of the special master to appeal a final determination on a survivor’s eligibility for federal funds. As of June 2004, it was unknown whether a domestic partner registration, for instance, will be recognized.

In some cases, a partner could be executor of the deceased partner’s estate, assuming wills had been drawn. Even if qualifying as the legal “personal representative,” some state laws demand that personal representatives distribute the funds to the “spouse, children or other relatives.” Thus a survivor could receive the funds, and then be directed to give them to a blood relative.

All other federal benefits, such as workers’ compensation and social security, may only go to legal spouses and children.

For example, the surviving legal spouse of a firefighter or police officer will receive a lifetime, tax-free pension equal to the victim’s final annual earnings. But, depending on the victim’s salary, a same-sex domestic partner of a firefighter or officer may only receive a one-time payment of about $50,000, which will then be taxed.

Further, the final rules allow funds to go to children, babies, and even fetuses. Unbelievably, the funds are allowed to go to illegal aliens, who aren’t American citizens and who are in violation of federal law.

Federal death benefits for survivors of public safety officers that were killed in the line of duty will be available to those who are not spouses, children or parents. A federal bill that became law on June 24, 2002 ensures that those officers naming a beneficiary in their life insurance policy will make that beneficiary eligible to claim federal death benefits of up to $250,000. Surviving same-sex partners could benefit.

This legislation appears to be the first to potentially provide a federal benefit to a surviving partner in a same-sex relationship. The bill was named after the Rev. Mychal Judge, a gay Catholic priest who was a New York firefighter chaplain. Judge was killed on September 11 by falling debris as he was administering last rights to a dying firefighter.

Taking Care of Our Own

In December 2001, the Human Rights Campaign as well as the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project created relief funds, specifically to help the surviving same-sex partner impacted by the terrorist tragedy.

The establishment of another fund — “September 11 Gay & Lesbian Family Fund” — was announced by The Empire State Pride Agenda, the New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, and the Stonewall Community Foundation. This fund offered at least $4,000 in assistance to partners in a same-sex relationship.

These latter two modest funds were vitally necessary because some of the tragedy relief agencies, as well as our own government, do not address the needs of our families.

Patchwork Responses

• “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, ’You helped this happen.’” - Rev. Jerry Falwell

“Well, I totally concur.” - Rev. Pat Robertson

- on Robertson’s right-wing TV show, The 700 Club, September 13, 2001

• “[Relief organizations] should be first giving priority to those widows who were at home with their babies, and those widowers who lost their wives. It should be given on the basis and priority of one man and one woman in a marital relationship. This is just another example of how the gay agenda is seeking to overturn the one man-one woman relationship from center stage in America, taking advantage of this tragedy.”

- Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chair of the right-wing Traditional Values Coalition, October 4, 2001

• “The freedom to marry the person you love is a precious right. While terrorists cruelly denied that right to those in your article, the right is denied every day by our government to millions of same-sex couples.”

- Keith Bradkowski, Novato, Calif., letter in the New York Times, January 22, 2002

The variety of responses was due, in part, to that fact that same-sex couples had almost no legal status in the United States in 2001. Only three states offered any sort of domestic partner registration; California, Hawaii, and Vermont. While Vermont’s registration is extensive, it is not recognized outside of the state. The other two registrations did not even come close to the depth and breath of coverage encompassed by a legal marriage.

Even with wills, powers of attorney, and domestic partner registrations, same-sex couples have historically had their children removed, lost jointly financed homes, and been denied access to partners in hospitals or funerals.

The seemingly arbitrary and diverse responses of the various agencies is also due to the widespread ambivalence, and pockets of deep-seated hatred toward lesbians and gay men. The anti-marriage “DoMA” laws that had been passed in some 36 states exemplify the dislike and disrespect for same-sex couples.

This prejudice is exhibited when attempting to provide even minor forms of equality through a legal recognition such as domestic partner registration. The huge battles that frequently have appeared to oppose registration seem silly considering that these registrations pale next to legal marriage, plus, they further codify an inadequate, second-class status.

The answer to the radical right wing — with their cries of “Family Values” — is that all families have value.

Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Try to Enter Here

One of the most devastating effects on same-sex couples to immerge from the terrorist attacks is the border lock-down.

In 2001, Partners Task Force received an average of five requests per week for help from binational couples who were forced to live apart because of the inability to sponsor a partner, due totally to the fact that same-sex partners are forbidden to legally marry each other. Legally married partners may sponsor their mate for citizenship.

U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) filed a bill (HR3650, since re-numbered to HR690) named “Permanent Partners Immigration Act of 2000.” It would allow an American citizen with a same-sex foreign partner to sponsor their foreign partner for immigration. It did not get a hearing and hence never came up for a vote.

This same bill was re-introduced for 2001, and, as of February 2002, had 88 co-sponsors. However, it was prevented from being voted on in 2001 by the same House leadership that had set the 2000 legislative agenda.

The Tragedy’s Aftermath

These American couples lost their partner in the September 11 tragedy.

  • Wesley Mercer, 70, was vice president of corporate security. He rushed to the 44th floor to supervise the evacuation of employees. All 3,700 employees escaped harm. Wesley, a decorated Army veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, returned to the 44th floor to make sure no one was left behind. He did not return.

    Bill Randolph was his partner for 26 years. Bill is not eligible for the full range of benefits — from pensions to Social Security payments, to special memorial funds — that a legally married partner would receive.

  • Peggy Neff, 54, studying for her real estate license, and Sheila Hein, 51, the main breadwinner and financial manager, had been in an 18-year relationship. One of the hijacked jets hit the Pentagon where Sheila, a civilian Army employee in the management and budget office, had just been assigned.

    When Peg began calling the dozens of agencies and charity groups offering benefits, she quickly learned that many were unable, or unwilling, to look beyond their next-of-kin definitions. While New York offered assistance to longtime, domestic partners, the Virginia Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund follows state law that offers awards only to a surviving spouse, parent, grandparent, sibling, adult child, or legal dependent of a deceased victim.

    The Red Cross assisted with $7,900 for immediate expenses, the National Association of Realtors helped with the mortgage and a federal employee group promised some assistance.

    But Peg has been denied Sheila’s government life insurance, been turned down by the Virginia Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, and had to get Sheila’s mother to sign a power of attorney before the Army would release her partner’s remains to her.

    Several groups told her they hadn’t set guidelines for which relatives qualify for aid. State and federal agencies have said that they are restricted by laws reserving key decisions and benefits to blood relatives.

    A neighbor reported that one organization said, “We don’t look too kindly on those type of relationships.”

    “She really was the love of my life, and I was a spouse,” Peggy said in an interviewed by Chris Lombardi in Women’s E-news, January 19, 2002.

    Sheila and Peg thought they had done everything possible to protect each other. In addition to their wills, they executed medical powers of attorney, and Sheila made sure that Peg was the beneficiary of her thrift savings account. About six months ago, Peg took out a $150,000 life insurance policy so that Sheila would be able to keep the house if Peg died.

    Sheila had life insurance through work. After the attacks, though, Peg learned from the Office of Personnel Management that Sheila never completed a beneficiary form, so that money now goes to next-of-kin.

    Peg stated in an affidavit filed with her federal claim, “Words cannot express what I have lost. She was my entire world and my soul mate, my closest confidante and my best friend.”

    The master of a federal fund established by the Department of Justice finally concluded that Peg was indeed entitled to compensation. Applying the state’s wrongful death law would have disqualified her from compensation. Instead, the fund applied Maryland’s estate law, reasoning that since Sheila had named Peg the executor of her estate and sole beneficiary in her will, Peg was the rightful beneficiary of the Victim Compensation Fund. She will receive $557,390, which is comparable to other survivors.

    Sheila has received the Defense of Freedom medal, the equivalent of the military Purple Heart. When rescue workers found Sheila’s remains, she was wearing a gold band that Peg had given her.

  • New York Police Detective Francis Coppola (36) and Eddy, who was a firefighter, had been together six years. Frank worked in the narcotics division. The couple lived in South Shore Long Island.

    When the first plan hit on September 11, 2001, Frank was five minutes away from the World Trade Center. As Frank ushered people out of the building, an injured woman grabbed his arm and asked for help getting out. As the two began to leave, they encountered Eddy who was about to go up the tower with his firefighter company. They stood together for a moment. Eddy looked at the woman clutching Frank’s arm and said, “Be careful with my boy.”

    As Eddy headed for the stairs to ascend, he shouted back to Frank, “I love you.” Previously, they had only publicly expressed affection by discretely using American sign language. Frank was startled, and signed back. “Chicken,” called Eddy, in their final communication.

    Frank spent 247 days at the site removing debris, hoping all the while to find Eddy’s remains. Eddy was never found.

    At Eddy’s memorial service, Frank was asked to stay in the back of the church and not speak to family or friends.

    Frank contacted a sister in October 2001 to ask if his estranged family wondered how he was. She replied “No, I’d rather you were dead than a fag.”

    Says Frank in his interview with Kevin Rennie for the Hartford Courant (February 23, 2003): “He was my sun and my moon. He was the one who rocked my world. He was also a clumsy big-mouth. He was a human being.”

    As of February 2003, Frank tells his story about having a loving partner in police training classes and bereavement groups. He tells them: “I want to be able to marry the person I love.”

    He tells the same thing to recent graduates of the police academy and veterans whenever asked to speak. His constant message: “It’s about love.”

  • Jeffrey Collman and Keith Bradkowski had been together for 11 years. Jeff was an American Airlines flight attendant who had received the American Professional Flight Attendant Award in 1999.

    Keith notified relatives and provided the Medical Examiner’s Office with information to help identify the remains, including the serial numbers of the couple’s matched wedding bands. Keith was subsequently denied Jeffrey’s death certificate because he is not “next-of-kin.”

    The airline sent a $25,000 death benefit — given to survivors of all crew members and passengers who died — not to Keith, but to Jeff’s parents. The parents also received Jeff’s last paycheck. The airline has no record of Jeff designating anyone to receive his 401(k) retirement savings.

    Jeff was estranged from his parents, but that didn’t stop them from claiming much of the aid designated for the next-of-kin. Jeff’s father — who had little to do with his son after consigning him to foster care when he was eight — told a CNN reporter that he disapproved of his son’s relationship, and said that Keith is entitled to nothing.

    Responding to challenges to his relationship, Keith said, “When I grieve, I shouldn’t have to prove the authenticity of our relationship.”

    On September 4, 2003, Keith testified before the U.S. Senate subcommittee against the anti-marriage, anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA) and similar measures. The hearing had been called to support a Constitutional amendment designed to permanently bar same-sex couples from any sort of legal recognition.

    Keith said at the hearing:

    “Jeff died without a will, which meant that while I dealt with loosing him, I also had huge anxiety about maintaining the home we shared together. Without a marriage license to prove I was Jeff’s next-of-kin, even inheriting basic household possessions became a legal nightmare.

    “The terrorists who attacked this country killed people, not because they were gay or straight, but because they were American. It is heart-wrenching that our own government does not protect its citizens equally, gay and straight, simply because they are Americans.”

  • Elba Cedeno lost her six-year partner, Catherine Smith, 44, who worked on the 97th floor of one of the World Trade Center towers. Elba is angry that she will not qualify to receive any of Catherine’s Social Security benefits. Unlike a legal spouse, she will not benefit from any of the money Catherine paid into the fund over the course of her life. If Elba were a legally recognized spouse, she would be entitled to weekly workers’ compensation checks covering two-thirds of Catherine’s earnings, up to $400 per week, or $20,000 per year.

    She will also be denied any pension funds, and will be taxed on anything Catherine left her in her will.

  • Seamus Oneal, 52, worked on the 105th floor of Tower One. Tom Miller, 51, had been his partner for three years.

    Seamus’ life insurance policy named Tom as the sole beneficiary, however, when the towers collapsed, the company that carried Seamus’ policy was demolished, and all the beneficiary forms were destroyed.

    Tom was told he would have to prove he had been Seamus’ beneficiary, and that, if he could not, all benefits would go to the next-of-kin.

    Tom submitted signed, notarized affidavits from Seamus’ family members saying they knew he was the named beneficiary, and they had no objections. After weeks of waiting, however, the insurance company replied that it would not be able to give him the proceeds. Instead, the insurance money would be given to Seamus’ estate, over which Tom has no control.

    Fortunately, Tom has a good relationship with Seamus’ relatives, so expects to eventually get that money. In the meantime, Tom won’t get the money soon enough to allow him to stay in the couple’s large Brooklyn apartment. Immediately after the disaster, Tom had to pack up and move, as he could not afford the rent by himself.

  • David O’Leary was partnered for 18 years to Michael Lapore. Michael was killed in his workplace on the 96th floor of Tower One. Models of careful retirement planning, they listed each other as “joint tenants with right of survivorship” when they bought their Yonkers house. They named each other as beneficiaries in their wills and IRAs. But David can not roll over Michael’s IRAs, because only a legal spouse can do that. And he does not qualify for workers’ compensation survivor benefits.

  • Carol Flyzik, 40, supervisor of marketing for Meditech Inc. in Framingham, was on the first plane to crash into the Trade Center. She was survived by Nancy Walsh her partner for nearly 13 years. They met when they were both registered nurses.

    Nancy has repeatedly struggled to prove her relationship with Carol. United Airlines did not call her to tell her of her loss. She did not receive the symbolic urn of debris from the site of the World Trade Center, nor the $25,000 the airline paid to spouses and families. She has fought to obtain death certificates, to claim benefits, and to be remembered.

    While Carol and Nancy raised children together (including Nancy’s daughter, Kristin) and renovated a house, in the eyes of the law, they were strangers. Carol did not have a will.

    In early May 2004, the Victum Compensation Fund finally agreed to award Nancy an undisclosed sum. Their daughter will also receive compensation.

  • Pamela J. Boyce, 43, worked as assistant vice president of accounting for the New York office of Carr Futures on the 92nd floor of Tower One. Her partner of six years, Catherine Anello, survives her.

  • John Keohane, 41, was killed by the falling debris near the Towers. He was with his 17-year partner, Mike Lyons, after the planes hit the towers. Mike survived. According to those close to Mike, the shock and pain were difficult to bear, and he struggled deeply with his partner’s death. On March 1, 2002, Mike killed himself.

  • Larry Courtney and Eugene Clark, 47, were partners for nearly 14 years. Eugene worked on the 102nd floor of the south tower as an administrative assistant at Aon Consulting. Larry and Eugene executed health care proxies and documents designating each other as insurance, 401k and pension beneficiaries. Manhattan residents, they registered as domestic partners with the City of New York.

    Larry said, “Just like married couples, Gene and I were a partnership in every way; emotionally, financially, legally and in our everyday lives. Gene would want me to seek the protections we should have as a married couple because we always believed we were a married couple. I’m still wearing the ring to prove it.”

    Larry has been forced to take legal action against Eugene’s insurance company for denying him spousal benefits.

  • Luke A. Dudek, 50, worked as a food and beverage controller at Windows on the World, a restaurant on the 106th floor of Tower One. He is survived by his 20-year partner, George Cuellar, 35.

    They worked for years to run their own high-end, floral design store. The couple had purchased a house for the business, called Coqui Design in New Jersey. It officially opened for business on Sept. 11, 2001.

  • Michael Lepore, 39, worked on the 97th floor of the Tower One. David O’Leary, his 18-year partner survives him.

  • William Anthony (Tony) Karnes, 37, worked on the 97th floor of Tower One. John Winter was his three-year partner. In dealing with the aftermath, John says that he was fortunate in having a good relationship with Tony’s family in Knoxville.

  • Graham Berkeley, 37, is survived by his boyfriend, Tim Fristoe.

  • Ronald Gamboa, 33, Dan Brandhorst, 41, were partners for 13 years. They were returning from a trip with their son David Gamboa-Brandhorst, 3, when they all died.

  • David Charlebois, 39, was co-pilot of American Airlines flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. He is survived by his 14-year partner Tom Hay.

  • Patricia McAneney, 50, was a floor fire martial on Tower One. She is survived by her 20-year partner, Margaret Cruz.

  • Renee Barrett, 41, was in Tower One. Her life partner, Enez Cooper, and 18-year-old son, Eddie, survive her.
Other Tragedies

These American couples, that have also lost a partner, experienced maltreatment following their loss.

  • San Francisco lacrosse coach Diane Whipple was killed in a horrific dog mauling in 2001. State law did not recognize her partner, Sharon Smith. Sharon had to first sue merely to be able to have the right to seek wrongful death damages.

    Awareness of her plight helped pass state legislation granting expanded rights to domestic partners.

  • In Florida, Tampa police Officer Lois Marrero was killed in the line of duty. Her 11-year life partner, Mickie Mashburn, was also a police officer. They had solemnized their relationship in a commitment ceremony at the Metropolitan Church of Tampa. At the funeral in July 2001, after the honor guard folded the flag on Lois’ coffin, they placed it in Mickie’s lap.

    Lois was killed just days before the pension changed its policy to let unmarried officers name beneficiaries. Mickie has been refused the lifetime pension benefits and has had to go to court in hopes of receiving it.

    Survivors of unmarried employees are now eligible to collect money paid into the plan, about $50,000, in death benefits for 10 years. Lois’ blood relatives objected to Mickie getting the pension, claiming the couple’s relationship was in difficulty, and that Lois had become involved with another woman.

  • In Washington State, Robert Schwerzler and Frank Vasquez were partnered for 28 years. They shared a home, business and other property. After Robert died in 1995, a Pierce County Superior Court judge awarded Frank most of the $230,0000 estate.

    Since there was no will, Robert’s siblings claimed there was no valid relationship — that Robert was not gay, that Frank was only a boarder — and that they should receive the inheritance. The State Appeals Court ruled that the community property law applies to marital-like relationships, and cannot be used in cases involving same-sex couples since the state legislature banned same-sex marriage.

    On appeal, the nine-member State Supreme Court unanimously ruled, in November 2001, that the case be re-tried in the lower court because, “Equitable claims are not dependent on the ‘legality’ of the relationship between the parties, nor are they limited by the gender or sexual orientation of the parties.”

    This meant that the state’s equity rule protects those in unmarried relationships without restrictions based on gender or sexual orientation.

    In July 2002, the case was settled with Vasquez retaining the ability to stay in his home, but receiving no financial assets for his ongoing living expenses. It was only a small portion of what he would have received had there been an estate plan.

  • In Deerfield Beach, Florida, Frank Gagliano had a four-year relationship with television news cameraman Rob Pierce. Although they shared household expenses, the house was in Rob’s name. While they intended to draw wills, naming each other beneficiaries, they never got around to it.

    In March 2000, Rob died in a helicopter crash. Because there is no will, all his possessions, including the house, went to his relatives.

  • In New York City, Bill Valentine and Joe Lopes had been partners for 21 years. Bill and Joe had executed health care proxies and documents designating each other as insurance, 401k and pension beneficiaries. They registered as domestic partners with the City of New York.

    Joe was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 587 when the plane crashed off Kennedy Airport in November 12, 2001. Bill has been forced to take legal action against Joe’s insurance company for denying him spousal benefits.

    Bill said: “Joe was my spouse. It would be an insult to our relationship and Joe’s memory if he were recognized as anything less. And that’s why I’m bringing this claim: to honour the reality of what Joe and I, and our families and friends all knew we had.”

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