by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
This weekend, Americans will observe the 10-year anniversary of the four coordinated suicide attacks against targets in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001 - more commonly known as 9/11.
So much has happened since 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger jets on that clear September morning, intentionally crashing two planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, collapsing them within two hours. So many lives were changed forever when, on that same morning, hijackers crashed a third plane into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. And, still, 10 years later, so many questions remain unanswered about United Airlines Flight 93, the fourth plane (intended for a Washington, D.C., target) that crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers attempted to take control of the airplane.
Nearly 3,000 people died, U.S. citizens and foreigners alike, civilians and military personnel, rescue workers and office workers, heterosexual and LGBT. Our 'differences' - be they of religion, race, or sexual orientation - didn't seem to matter to the American people because, on that day, all peace-loving people of the world seemed to declare in solidarity, 'Today, we are all American.'
Bravery was the action of the day. Bystanders turned into heroes as they administered first aid, helped pull bodies from the rubble, and fed and cheered the days-long rescue efforts of the emergency first responders.
America is strong. She is a nation that wears a coat of many colors. She is not so easily shaken. Although the destruction caused serious damage to the economy (although not nearly as much as al-Qaeda predicted) and the loss of life and illusion of American invincibility were evident, the Pentagon was repaired within a year and the cleanup of the World Trade Center site - known as ground zero - was completed in May of 2002.
We shall never forget. How could we? One War on Terror later, as troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, and after the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, the price of American blood, image, and influence has changed again and again. While we've made it 10 long, hard years without a single major terrorist attack, we still, collectively as a nation, get nervous whenever a plane drops off the radar for even a second, spend hours in airport security lines, and allow our privacy to be violated in hopes that we will never again suffer again the tears that Lady Liberty cried that raucous September morning.
A NATION OF MEMORIALS
So now, as the battle-bandaged U.S. approaches the Sunday milestone, we look toward memorializing our heroes.
In 2008, the Pentagon Memorial opened adjacent to the building.
In November 2009, ground was broken for a memorial formally dedicated to the victims of United Airlines Flight 93. A serene walkway overlooks the seasonal blooms and leads to a granite wall inscribed with the names of all who were aboard the ill-fated jetliner.
It took 10 years, but the National Park Service's Flight 93 National Memorial in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania, will be unveiled this weekend during events that are expected to draw 10,000 people, including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
And finally, ground zero will officially be replaced on Sunday, when the National September 11 Memorial & Museum will be opened. The memorial consists of a forest of trees with two square pools in the center, where the Twin Towers once stood.
Adjacent to the memorial rises the 1,776-foot One World Trade Center site, estimated for completion by 2013. Upon completion, One World Trade Center will be the tallest building in the United States and the tallest all-office building in the world.
LGBT HEROES OF 9/11
So, here we are, standing tall, 10 years later. Shaken but not wrecked. But how does history look upon its LGBT heroes of 9/11?
Quite well, actually. While it may be true that the loss of LGBT life - including first responders - may not have been in the mainstream media's focus, and was generally absent from political speeches regarding 9/11, we, as a community, have done an outstanding job of remembering those heroes we lost on what was undoubtedly one of the worst mornings in our nation's history.
Many Gay men and women perished or lost loved ones as a result of the 9/11 attacks. If we consider those not yet out, it becomes impossible to calculate the exact number of LGBT victims. Those who were out have become the subject of much admiration.
Mark Bingham, a Gay public relations executive and rugby player from San Francisco, is perhaps the best-known LGBT death at the hands of the 9/11 terrorists. Bingham was one of the passengers on Flight 93, which crashed into the countryside in Pennsylvania.
Bingham's story of heroism was portrayed in the Hollywood film United 93. According to his mother, who spoke to him by cell phone after the plane was hijacked, Bingham was part of a small group of passengers believed to have attempted to wrest control of the plane from the hijackers. Authorities credit them for stopping the jetliner from hitting its intended target, believed to be the Capitol or White House.
Among the openly Gay people who lost their lives at the World Trade Center was New York Fire Department Catholic chaplain Father Mychal Judge. Judge was killed while ministering to a fallen firefighter at ground zero. He was designated as 'Victim 0001,' recognized as the first official victim of the attacks. Other victims perished before him, including aircrew, passengers, and occupants of the towers, but Judge was the first certified fatality as his was the first body to be recovered and brought to the coroner. Judge's helmet was presented to the pope, and Judge was chosen Grand Marshal of the 2002 Chicago St. Patrick's Day Parade. There is also an initiative to elevate Judge to Catholic sainthood. In 2002, the U.S. Congress passed the Mychal Judge Police and Fire Chaplains Public Safety Officers' Benefit Act into law. This was the first time the federal government ever extended equal benefits to same-sex couples, allowing the domestic partners of public safety officers killed in the line of duty to collect their federal death benefits.
Another of the victims was American Airlines pilot David Charlebois, who was Gay and an active member of the National Gay Pilots Association. Charlebois was serving as first officer, or co-pilot, onboard American Airlines Flight 77 when terrorists hijacked the Boeing 757 jetliner and crashed it into the Pentagon. A special memorial Mass and service were held at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. In attendance were Mayor Anthony Williams and a sea of blue representing the American Airline pilots and flight attendants, whom he highly respected and loved.
A Gay couple, Ronald Gamboa and Dan Brandhorst, his partner of 13 years, who were traveling with their 3-year-old adopted son, David, were killed when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the second tower. Brandhorst and Gamboa were founding members of the Pop Luck Club, an L.A. organization for Gay men interested in adopting children.
And the list goes on and on. From flight attendants to World Trade Center employees, these LGBT heroes will be forever linked to ground zero and the day that changed America forever. They didn't seek to help and protect only Gays when disaster struck. They risked their lives for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, because a human life is one to cherish, and death does not discriminate. It was a time where differences did not matter, and all of our causes seemed simplistic as we watched thousands of lives be taken for granted.
Gays around the world will mourn on September 11 of each year - not just for the LGBT persons who lost their lives, but for all. And yet we do this, as we have for the past 10 years, without full rights as U.S. citizens. Unable to marry, easy to fire, and cast aside as a minority on the fringe of mainstream society - although we are, and always have been, an active, daily member of this society. We are America. While it may be true that there does not exist a Gay Ellis Island we all must pass through to get our Gay Green Card, the truth remains that we are here, and we are a part of the fabric that makes up the United States of America. No one can take that away - not the federal government and their discriminatory anti-Gay laws, and not the terrorists of al Qaeda.
Francis S. Coppola, a Gay New York City detective whose partner, a firefighter named Eddie, died in the attacks, summed up the feelings many LGBT people have had about 9/11:
'I have never been more proud of being an American or a New Yorker, but at the same time it has made me sad. The greatest country in the world, and yet we are treated like second-class citizens. & The great love of my life died doing what he did best and what he loved to do: helping others,' Coppola told the media in regard to the current fight for the LGBT community to achieve equal rights on a federal level. 'I have never been an activist or ever wanted to be one; however, it is time we stand up and be counted and demand equality - nothing more or nothing less.'
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