DOJ rules must not leave survivors of gay and lesbian victims behind, Neas says

Neas Urges Unbiased Implementation of Sept. 11 Aid Fund

People For the American Way Foundation President Ralph G. Neas has urged the U.S. Department of Justice not to write overly narrow or discriminatory regulations when implementing the newly established September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. The fund was established by Congress to help survivors deal with both economic and non-economic losses suffered in the Sept. 11 attacks.

In a letter sent to the Justice Department, Neas specifically said the agency must ensure awards from the fund are available to all surviving family members of those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, including the committed partners and non-biological children of gay and lesbian victims.

Neas’s letter notes that in the wake of the tragedies, some extremists on the right called for excluding families of gays and lesbians from relief efforts.

Neas’s letter also notes that among the gay men and lesbians who lost their lives, some have been praised as national heroes. "It would be an insult not only to those heroes, but to all who died on that tragic day, for the Department to draw artificial lines defining loss and grief," he wrote. "In fact, it would be unconscionable."

The full text of Neas’s letter to Kenneth L. Zwick, director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Management Programs, follows:

I am writing on behalf of People For the American Way Foundation and our more than 500,000 members and activists across the country in response to the Department’s November 5, 2001 request for public comments regarding the Department’s forthcoming regulations for implementing and administering the "September 11 Victim Compensation Fund" established by the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act ("the Act"). As that Act makes clear, the purpose of the Fund is to provide compensation to any persons who were physically injured in the September 11 terrorist attacks as well as to the surviving "relatives" of those who died.

We strongly urge the Department to promulgate regulations ensuring that compensation is available to all surviving family members of those killed, including the committed partners and the non-biological children of gay and lesbian victims. Just as the terrorists drew no lines in killing people, our country must draw no lines in compensating those who suffered the most personal of losses from these horrific deaths. In promulgating its regulations, the Department should look not to legal formalisms that may define relatives or families for purposes of other laws, but rather to the realities of the lives of those who were killed and those who loved and were dependent on them.

Indeed, it is clear from the Act that this is precisely the approach the Department must take in administering the Fund. The Act specifically identifies a number of "economic" and "non-economic" losses for which compensation is to be awarded from the Fund. These include burial costs, loss of earnings, physical and emotional pain, suffering, mental anguish, and loss of society and companionship. See §§ 402(5) and 402(7). It is unquestionable that the survivors of those killed on September 11 suffered these types of losses regardless of their sexual orientation or marital status or their formal legal relationship to the deceased. Indeed, grief and economic loss know no such boundaries. The emotional devastation and economic loss caused by the death of one’s partner is not any less because that person was of the same sex as the survivor. A child’s anguishing loss of a parent is not any less because there was no biologic tie. Since the purpose of the Fund is to compensate survivors precisely for the types of losses suffered by family members of those killed, the Department’s regulations should not and indeed cannot properly exclude anyone who was a family member in fact.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 tragedies, as various victim-relief funds were being established, some on the extreme radical right criticized relief agencies that had made clear their intent to make funds available to assist not only surviving married spouses of persons killed in the attacks but also the surviving partners of gay men and lesbians who had been killed. These cruel and reprehensible calls for the exclusion of gay and lesbian families from relief efforts have been accompanied by claims that the effort to provide relief to all who have suffered is somehow a push for a so-called "gay agenda." However, the determination of who was actually victimized by the September 11 attacks, of who actually suffered loss, of who actually is grieving, is not about advancing some alleged political "agenda." What is at issue here is a human tragedy of unimaginable horror and dimension, and about the fair and humane treatment of all who have personally suffered from the acts of the terrorists.

Many gay and lesbian Americans lost their lives on September 11. Many of them left behind loved ones, including partners and children whose lives were intertwined with theirs and who were dependent on them for financial as well as emotional support. A number of them are known to have engaged in heroic acts that day, and they have been praised as national heroes. It would be an insult not only to those heroes, but to all who died on that tragic day, for the Department to draw artificial lines defining loss and grief. In fact, it would be unconscionable. We urge that the Department’s regulations reflect these concerns.

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