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National NOW Times >> Spring 2002 >> Article

Same Sex Couples Face Post-September 11 Discrimination

by Rebecca Farmer, Press Secretary

Peggy Neff was devastated with the loss of her partner of 18 years, Sheila Hein, who worked in the Pentagon and was killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building. The pain of losing her partner was multiplied when, after seeking support from the state of Virginia, she received only a letter in response denying her any benefits. The notice stated, "Please accept our condolences on the loss of your friend, Sheila M.S. Hein. We regret to inform you that you are not eligible to file a claim for benefits under the Virginia Victims of Crime Act."

Virginia law only allows for a spouse, parent, grandparent, sibling, adult child or legal dependent of a deceased victim to receive survivor benefits.

Then Virginia Gov. James Gilmore could have followed in the footsteps of fellow Republican Gov. George Pataki of New York, who signed an executive order granting the gay surviving partners of World Trade Center victims equal spousal benefits of up to $30,000 apiece from the state's Crime Victims Board. Instead, Gilmore flatly refused to do anything to ease the suffering of same sex partners of the September 11 attacks.

"Even while the country recovers from a wide-scale terrorist attack, homophobia still rears its ugly head," said NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives. "Because same sex couples are disallowed from the same legal and financial benefits as heterosexual married couples, lesbians and gays face an undue burden when crisis strikes."

In addition to New York's Gov. Pataki, the Red Cross also chose to recognize same sex parnership in the distribution of its $100 million in survivor benefits, promising to use a "broad definition of family" to avoid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

"Neff's situation and the former Virginia governor's refusal to equally compensate her for the loss of her partner is yet another reason why same sex couples must have equal rights in marriage or domestic partnership," Vives said.

Stay tuned for the next issue of the National NOW Times for more in-depth coverage of equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex couples.

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