New NY State Law Giving Spousal Benefits To Gay Partners of 9/11 Victims Is A 'Significant Step Forward,' But Gay Families Still Unprotected in Tragedies
(New York, Wednesday, August 21, 2002) - About 20 lesbian and gay survivors whose partners died in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center will receive spousal benefits from insurance companies under a state law that takes effect this week. Advocates and victims' surviving partners praised the new law this morning but said thousands of other lesbians and gay men remain without the 'safety net' that is intended to protect all people whose committed partners die on the job.
"I'm glad this law recognizes that Gene and I were a couple in every way - emotionally, financially, legally and in our everyday lives," said Larry Courtney, whose partner of nearly 14 years, Eugene Clark, died on Sept. 11 at the World Trade Center. "This is good for some of us, but we have to do more for all of us. People whose partners died in other tragedies on the job are still fighting with insurance companies for the basic benefits that were intended for families in our situation."
The Empire State Pride Agenda, which helped pass the new law, and Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, which has been providing legal assistance to some 20 lesbian and gay surviving partners of the Sept. 11 attack, commended the legislature and the governor for their action on behalf of Sept. 11 survivors and vowed to continue working toward equal benefits for lesbians and gay men whose partners die on the job every other day of the year.
“The workers compensation survivor benefit is one of the bedrock government protections aimed at helping victims’ surviving partners rebuild their lives,” said Joe Grabarz, Executive Director of the Pride Agenda. “We thank the legislature and the governor for taking this significant and historic step to provide spousal benefits to lesbian and gay partners.”
While the Pride Agenda agreed that a permanent expansion of the law to cover all domestic partners was preferred, it also emphasized the groundbreaking aspect of today’s development. “This law along with several other 9/11-related measures that were unanimously approved this year by the legislature represent the first time that domestic partners have been recognized in any context whatsoever under New York State law,” said Grabarz. “Getting lawmakers to this point has been a long process of education and grassroots advocacy by the lesbian and gay community from across the state,” continued Grabarz. “We hope this is just a beginning and will be working with legislators to see that our families and relationships receive additional support in the future, ”
Bill Valentine, whose partner of 21 years, Joe Lopes, was flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 587 when the plane crashed near Kennedy Airport last Nov. 12, claiming the lives of all on board, continues battling insurance companies that are trying to deny him these spousal benefits. Lambda Legal filed claims on behalf of both Courtney and Valentine at the New York State Workers' Compensation Board earlier this year - the first-ever cases brought by gay or lesbian partners seeking coverage as spouses under New York's Workers' Compensation Law. Because Courtney is covered by the new law taking effect this week that includes same-sex domestic partners of those killed in the Sept. 11 attack in the existing definition of "spouse," his claim will should be granted, while Valentine's claim is still pending.
"Sept. 11 made people more aware of all the suffering that occurs if a loved one is torn from his or her partner's life, and that kind of suffering occurs under all sorts of tragic circumstances," said Adam Aronson, the Lambda Legal staff attorney who has handled the Courtney and Valentine cases. "The safety net should be the same for all committed partners, gay or straight."
"Eugene Clark and Joe Lopes both died on the job. They paid the same taxes and insurance premiums as their co-workers, and it's only fair that their closest family members - their life partners - get support as spouses," Aronson said. "This law provides that for Gene's partner, and we'll keep fighting for Joe's partner."
Last week, Lambda Legal filed additional papers in Valentine's case, and the insurance companies will respond this fall. A hearing is set for early November. That case, along with Courtney's initial claim, is the first legal action brought by same-sex partners in either the Sept. 11 or Flight 587 tragedies. New York's Workers' Compensation Law gives first priority to a surviving spouse to receive benefits of up to $400/week for the remainder of the surviving spouse's life or until the spouse remarries. The law does not define spouse as people with marriage certificates.
With the upcoming elections and the opportunity to elect additional legislators supportive of lesbian and gay rights, the Pride Agenda has made support for family recognition, including a permanent extension of workers compensation to include domestic partners, one of its core prerequisites for endorsing candidates. Candidates from both major parties have responded favorably to these questions.
Contact:Joe Tarver, Pride Agenda, 212-627-0305, (cell) 917-604-7509
Geoffrey Knox, Lambda Legal, 212-229-0540, (cell) 917-414-1749