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The Bomb With A Loaded Message For Gays in America, Even Heroism Isn't a Ticket to Inclusion By Hank Stuever for the Washington Post, October 27, 2001
publications & resources > resource documents > The Bomb With A Loaded Message For Gays in America, Even Heroism Isn't a Ticket to Inclusion By Hank Stuever for the Washington Post, October 27, 2001

October, 2001

Let us consider the fag bomb.

It's almost nothing, except it's an interesting case study about where gay men and lesbians fit into the new world disorder, and where they still do not.

Gays are intimately, tragically part of this war: David Charlebois, a fixture of Dupont Circle's upper set, was a pilot on one of the doomed airliners Sept. 11. And there was the 6-foot-5 rugby player from San Francisco, Mark Bingham, who is thought to have helped fellow passengers confront terrorists in a plane over Pennsylvania. The list goes on -- the beloved gay chaplain of the New York Fire Department, killed in the World Trade Center collapse; two men and their adopted toddler killed on one of the planes; the many who lost longtime partners and are now navigating an iffy situation of relief aid and death benefits for non-traditional couples.

Then came a certain picture of a certain piece of U.S. government property about to be dropped on the Taliban.

In a photograph transmitted by the Associated Press on Oct. 11, an unidentified sailor on the USS Enterprise flight deck, in the Arabian Sea, according to the wire service's caption, had just signed a bomb bearing a line of graffito that reads:


Within hours of the photo's worldwide release, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a media watchdog group, was on the case. The AP removed it from the wires a day later.

"Is taking the picture down the right response?" asks Cathy Renna, GLAAD's New York spokeswoman. "I actually want the picture to run, but with context. It gets to something we need to discuss, which is that it's okay to be in the Navy and to write 'fag' on a bomb and drop it on a terrorist. That word is still okay with some people, and these are the kinds of things you might see if you happened to be gay and were serving in the military. It exemplifies every single reason why our work is as relevant as it was on September 10."

What exactly is wrong with the fag bomb?

(Wrong, that is, besides the typos. "Oh, that's nothing," Renna says. "You should see the hate e-mail I get. We have met the enemy, and he can't spell.") Although "fag" is a slur familiar to anyone who's ever been on a recess playground, it comes across as a stinging reminder that, for all their losses Sept. 11 and contributions to any manner of relief efforts with the rest of the nation, gay men and women are still getting the distinct vibe, here and there, that they are second-class Americans.

Both the AP and the Navy feel awful about the bomb picture.

"It was journalistic error, and the editing process didn't work the way it should have," says AP spokesman Jack Stokes. "The picture never should have gotten through, and nobody should have seen it."

Stokes said the photographer aboard the Enterprise, Jockel Finck, "is not American, and that [epithet] meant nothing to him. The process just didn't work the way it should have. When there is an offensive slur in a photograph, we do not allow it on the wire -- unless it's germane to the story, which this wasn't."

At the Pentagon, Navy Rear Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli says the crew of the Enterprise has been informed to more closely edit "the spontaneous acts of penmanship by our sailors. We've gotten word to our commanders saying, 'That's not up to our standards, guys,' " Pietropaoli says. "We want to keep the messages positive. Most of what gets written on them is - - they'll write things like FDNY or I {heart} NY. That's more keeping in line with what we want to do."

So that's the lesson, kids:

Write nice stuff on bombs.

So, God Bless Gay-Inclusive America?

It would almost seem so.

There are more than just one or two stray connections between the events of Sept. 11 and contemporary gay identity. At a $250-a-plate charity dinner Oct. 6, Human Rights Campaign Executive Director Elizabeth Birch, a woman singularly adroit at making any event, no matter how tragic, seem somehow warm and fuzzy and gay-related, said this about everybody's war: " In an instant, America became whole. The flames of terror forged our hearts together and vaporized the differences between us."

It does feel like a strange new world. Bereaved gay men and lesbians are finding that some emergency relief aid is available to them if they can demonstrate financial counter-dependence as the surviving half of a couple. Many private corporations have made clear to domestic partners of killed employees that they, too, will be entitled to insurance and other emergency benefits. (Pensions are another matter.)

Not everyone has been that lucky.

"There are real day-to-day issues for us here," says Joe Tarver, a spokesman for Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay rights group. "People were showing up at the pier" -- Pier 94, where emergency relief agencies set up -- "with immediate needs. If they lost a partner and live in Manhattan with a $4,000 rent, that's an issue. If you have children with your partner which are not your biological children or yours legally, that's an issue. These things are happening . . . and there are no clear-cut guidelines within the relief agencies. A number of people haven't stepped forward to apply for aid because they are closeted -- the relationships were secret."

Matt Foreman, director of Empire State Pride Agenda, recalls one case of a woman who lost her longtime partner in the attack. They owned two homes and shared a joint checking account but lived outside New York City and therefore didn't have a "domestic partnership" certificate issued by the municipal government. So the woman had problems getting assistance from one relief agency, which said it couldn't help domestic partners if they didn't have the certificate. Only after an advocacy group got involved was the woman able to get help.

Some immediate victories for gay rights groups have emerged post- Sept. 11: Gov. George Pataki was persuaded to immediately change New York' s crime-victim assistance program, which previously required domestic partners to prove their loved one provided at least 75 percent of the household income before they could get any aid.

But the emergency money is just a salve, Foreman says: "What's still unavailable to gays and lesbians and their non-biological survivors are the far- reaching government funds -- Social Security, workers' compensation. . . . We're not in 'Leave It to Beaver' land anymore. There are all kinds of families who don't fit the government's definition of family, who need help and won't be able to get it."

On the cultural-war front, the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson quickly insinuated after the attacks that an immoral nation that embraces homosexuality (among other things) had brought holy wrath upon itself.

They were resoundingly told to shut their yaps by a shellshocked America -- even by Rush Limbaugh, and somewhat less directly by the Bush White House.

"Falwell got creamed by everybody, which may have been the final nail in his coffin," says GLAAD's Renna, who was surprised to see so many people step in to do her job. "I took it as some kind of symbol of progress." (Falwell later recanted, saying his remarks on Robertson's "700 Club" TV show were taken "out of their context.")

Gay visibility was never an issue in New York and still isn't: Hedda Lettuce and other Manhattan drag queens have been seen helping out near Ground Zero; at a gay rights fundraising auction for disaster relief, bidders bought Rudy Giuliani a cross-dressing cameo role on a forthcoming episode of Showtime's "Queer as Folk," which the tireless New York mayor has said he'll do if someone raises matching funds.

Tom Ryan, a firefighter in Ladder Company 12 in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, says he's been encouraged by further signs of acceptance. He was friends with Mychal Judge, the fire department's chaplain, who was also involved in a ministry to gay Catholics and was himself gay. Judge's funeral was one of the first; for Ryan there would be dozens more funerals of friends he lost.

"I think we've shown Americans that this is what it's all about, that we can't be like the Taliban and pick and choose who doesn't get rights, " says Ryan, who is president of a gay firefighters club that has 500 members nationwide. "There are police officers and firefighters who are gay and lesbian and have been just as much a part of this, have given of themselves."

As Americans everywhere queued up to donate blood after the attack, many were surprised to learn that the Red Cross still refuses the blood of any man who admits to having had sex just once with another man since 1977 -- yes, since even before "Saturday Night Fever"-fever, including, if they're being honest on the bloodmobile gurney, all those straight guys who put on black turtlenecks and Depeche Mode records and tried bisexuality for a week during sophomore year.

All blood donations are routinely screened for HIV before they go into ready supply, yet monogamous healthy gay men are still not allowed to give because there's a period after infection where a person doesn't have enough antibodies in his blood to be detected.

And when it comes to serving the cause, military service is still a central issue to gay rights advocates.

A "stop loss" order issued after the attack by the Navy and Air Force (but not the Army, Marine Corps or Coast Guard) put a brief kibosh on the procedural discharge of homosexual personnel during wartime, though it by no means ends the problematic "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"We've had a lot of calls from people who have misunderstood the stop-loss order and want to know if they can now be part of the American response to terrorism and openly contribute to the military effort," says Steve Ralls of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in Washington.

"Unfortunately, the answer is no, they still cannot serve," Ralls says. He saw the AP's "High Jack This Fags" photo as another letdown. "I think that should be disturbing to a lot of Americans. It says gays and lesbians are inferior citizens, which is the wrong message for our country' s largest employer to be sending."

In the daily flow of attack-related obituaries in the New York Times, Joe Tarver finds himself scanning for references to spouses or children, "and then I move on to the next one, because on some level I'm looking to see if someone was gay or not."

This is something all gays and lesbians learned to do long before Sept. 11, to feel they belong. They read between the lines. The occasional obit refers to a single male or female and may throw out some larger clue, especially of the cliched variety -- devotion to pets, he loved opera, she never missed the U.S. Open. "You just sort of jump on it, and start to figure it out," Tarver says.

GLAAD's Renna says sometimes the media forget to state the obvious, or they delete it. A "Dateline" story on NBC recounted the stories of the passengers on United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, and the cell phone calls that indicated that several male passengers had decided to overtake the hijackers. One of those was Mark Bingham, the gay rugby player and public relations executive from San Francisco.

"I took issue with 'Dateline' because they didn't say he was gay, " Renna says, even though Bingham's family and partner would have encouraged it, since Bingham was proud of his sexual orientation. "They said it didn' t fit in, but it did. They mentioned his height, his size, his profession." (Other news organizations have done stories on gays who died in the attack.)

"It's in these tragedies that gay people become human to the rest of the country," says Matt Foreman of Empire State Pride Agenda. "It's not about advancing the gay agenda. It's trying to get people the assistance they deserve. We pay taxes and are still being treated unfairly."

Other activists are saddened that the mainstream gay groups haven' t taken up the anti-war cause.

"All this gay-hero, gay-victim, gay-Americans stuff is fine, but you wonder if we learned anything about death in relation to AIDS," says New York activist William K. Dobbs. "Why would gay groups care only about what' s chalked on a bomb and refuse to reckon with where that bomb is going, and our foreign policy? Why aren't gays leading the way on some very real civil rights and liberties concerns going on right now?"

To no one's surprise, being gay in America is immeasurably better than being gay in Afghanistan: Among the many news reports making the e- mail rounds among lesbians and gays these days is a description of what the Taliban recommends for its own gay interlopers.

Various sentences under Taliban law, according to human rights groups, call for a homosexual to be beaten and thrown into a pit. The pit should then be filled with heavy chunks of rock and rubble (there must be plenty of that at this point). A truck should then be driven back and forth over the pile. Other documented penalties have included simply being buried alive, or having a tank push a brick wall over onto the accused.

Not nice at all, and perhaps too complicated to express on a missile.

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