“I got you a present,” my partner, Lynn, told me as she took a large, wrapped item from the back of her Subaru.
My birthday wasn’t for another six months, and I hadn’t done anything really remarkable lately, so I was a bit surprised. Not that we don’t give each other little gifts from time to time, but this was big.
I opened it to find a great photo of the Twin Towers with the historic replica ship the “Half Moon” docked right before them. The “Half Moon” was the ship Hendrick Hudson used to sail up the yet-to-be named Hudson River back in the 1600s when he stumbled upon the city I now call home, Albany, N.Y.
I immediately assumed I got the significance of the photo the old world meets the new, progress, growth, industrialism, the glory of capitalism.
Then Lynn told me the real reason she got it for me: “This was taken on Sept. 10 the day before 9/11.”
Talk about capturing a moment in history.
All the memories of that day five years ago came flooding back: Crying with my colleagues at the enormity of the devastation we were seeing on the tiny 13-inch TV we had in the office. E-mailing a friend who worked at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, finding him safe but dazed, and saying that Fifth Avenue and 42 Street, the view from his office window, was pretty much deserted.
When I got home that day, all Lynn and I could do was hold each other and watch the news. The country, our country, was attacked by foreign terrorists hell-bent on killing us because we were Americans.
We cried as we watched one of the few true moments of bi-partisanship of the Bush II years both houses of Congress standing together on the steps of the Capitol singing “God Bless America.”
I even remember finding solace in the president’s speech probably his first and last good one.
No sooner had the feeling settled in that LGBT people were Americans just like everyone else grieving the loss of life than it gave way just like the steel girders of the Trade Center.
First, Jerry Falwell put the blame for 9/11 squarely at our feet. On “The 700 Club,” he told his evangelist buddy Pat Robertson’s TV audience, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, “‘You helped this happen.'”
Sure, he later apologized, but only after his words reinforced the homophobia of his radical Christian right cohorts.
Then, the stories about the lesbians and gay men who perished started to surface.
The most famous names are Father Mychal Judge, the gay New York City Fire Department chaplain who was killed while caring for a firefighter at Ground Zero, and Mark Bingham, the 31-year old gay man who helped to bring down United Airlines Flight 93 before it hit its intended target, the White House.
Of course, there were others, close to two dozen who were known to be gay or lesbian, and probably many more who weren’t out.
But the stories that underscored how LGBT people were second-class citizens even in the face of this national tragedy were the hoops the partners of those who died had to jump through to get the benefits that were quickly given to heterosexual survivors such as spouses and fiances.
Instead, we had to lobby and guilt-trip federal and state officials to treat us with a modicum of respect and equality.
Five years after 9/11, the federal Pension Protection Act which extends two crucial financial protections to same-sex couples who want to leave their retirement savings to nonheterosexual spouse beneficiaries was finally signed into law.
The first provision allows the transfer of an individual’s retirement plan benefits to a domestic partner or other nonspouse beneficiary (sibling, parent, child, etc.) when the individual dies, without incurring the massive tax liabilities we had before.
The second allows gay couples (and others with nonspouse, nondependent beneficiaries) similar access to laws that permit people to draw on their retirement funds in case of a qualifying medical or financial emergency. In the past, only straight, heterosexual couples or their dependents could do this.
I can’t help but think this bill is President Bush’s little present to Republicans in marginal districts targeted by Democrats in the midterm elections, to show that the GOP really isn’t as bad as we think.
Give yourself a present: Make sure your paperwork is in order to take advantage of the new law.
But don’t for a minute believe the Republicans have changed their tune. They may have sung “God Bless America,” but their America still doesn’t include us.
Libby Post is a political commentator on public radio, on the Web and in print.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, August 25, 2006.