Civil Rights Groups Urge Fair Treatment for Surviving Lesbian and Gay Partners of September 11th Victims
(NEW YORK, Monday, November 26, 2001) --In a joint letter to the United States Department of Justice, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Human Rights Campaign, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force urged Attorney General John Ashcroft to act fairly in compensating all surviving family members of September 11th victims, including lesbian and gay survivors and their children.
The federal government set up the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to provide financial support for survivors whose relatives were killed or injured in the attacks. Because same-sex relationships are widely denied legal recognition, surviving lesbian and gay partners are grappling with additional trauma: "proving" they are a family member of a victim, and not knowing if they will find support from government funds.
Lambda, which authored the letter, and the other groups asked the Department of Justice to recognize that lesbian and gay survivors of this tragedy need the same security and support as everyone else who is grieving. For this reason, it is essential that the September 11th Fund include those who lost life partners or de facto parents or children, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status.
"Attorney General Ashcroft has the authority to determine which relatives are eligible for support," says Lambda Staff Attorney Jennifer Middleton, who drafted the letter. "The only fair and humane response is to recognize all victims of this tragedy, including lesbian and gay partners and their children, and to distribute the funds equitably to all those who suffered losses."
The letter to Ashcroft makes specific recommendations on how to evaluate relationships in the absence of blood or legal ties. Individuals who can show a relationship of mutual interdependence, such as sharing a residence, finances, day-to-day activities, and the emotional bonds of a family, deserve help in this time of need. The letter suggests that the federal fund should mirror New York's law governing emergency relief awards, which grants surviving partners benefits comparable to surviving spouses.
"We urge the Attorney General and the Department of Justice to follow the lead of Governor Pataki and New York State and provide equally for all families, including gay and lesbian families, who lost their loved one during the horrible events of September 11," said Matt Foreman, the executive director of ESPA.
Lambda, ESPA and HRC have been working with lesbian and gay surviving partners who carry the insecurity of not knowing whether they will be eligible for support. The letter stressed how important it is that all types of benefits be available to help these survivors.
"To achieve the stated purpose of the Fund, it is critical that these regulations reflect the reality of relationships and families in today's society," said Elizabeth Birch, HRC executive director. "Doing so would complement what other significant private relief efforts, including the American Red Cross and the Sally Mae 911 Education Fund, have already done by recognizing the domestic partners of victims when disbursing survivor benefits."
Lambda noted that even if Attorney General Ashcroft agrees to the groups' request, lesbian and gay survivors will still not be eligible for other benefits of the safety net offered by government and employers, including Social Security benefits, pensions, health care coverage, death benefits and workers' compensation.
"Because they could not marry, surviving lesbian and gay partners of this tragedy are suffering not only the additional psychological trauma of having their relationships ignored, but may also suffer the consequences of not being equally supported in their time of need," said Lambda Executive Director Kevin M. Cathcart.