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"We're so very segmented that it's difficult to get a single statement that is powerful and acceptable."

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Vigil after the memorial service at New York's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, Oct. 1. Bob Pileggi

Why Queers Were Silent

OCTOBER 31, 2001. A month after the September 11 terrorist attacks, The Gully spoke with three New York activists about the gay community's reaction to the catastrophe. Andrés Duque is Coordinator, Mano a Mano coalition of New York Latino lgbt organizations and activists. Richard D. Burns is the Executive Director of New York's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center. Glennda Testone is Northeast Regional Media Manager, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

The Gully: In the weeks immediately following the September 11 terrorist attacks, New York City's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community remained mostly silent and invisible and did not publicly, and collectively, react to the events. Did you have that feeling? If so, why do you think this happened?

Duque, Mano a Mano: I did have that feeling. My personal opinion is that people-of-color queer organizing does not react to lgbt issues, specifically, but reacts to wider social issues. We've learned to avoid speaking about how the lgbt movement is feeling because we have taught ourselves to talk about general issues. So, this [the September 11 attacks] caught us unprepared to talk about the larger lgbt issues. Also, some people were waiting to see the ramifications of things and how things reacted. We [the lgbt community] are so very segmented that it's difficult to get a single statement that is powerful and acceptable.

At the time, I was working on the death of Eddie Garzón [the gay man slain on August 15 in a Queens street in what has been classified as a bias crime.] I was coming out of a huge period of mourning that went on for two months. I helped Eddie's family find their way here. They arrived from Colombia and didn't speak English. Mano a Mano had to close for a couple of days after September 11 because we're downtown at 14th Street, and then a computer virus struck our system, so we couldn't send emails.

Immediately after September 11, the situation was discussed at a queer people-of-color event on racial equality and justice that had been previously scheduled at the Brecht Forum. And the routine meeting of leaders of queer people-of-color groups that takes place every couple of months at the Audre Lorde Project also addressed the issue. I also saw discussions, on a more personal basis, in a queer black men's online list. Among the emails received by Mano a Mano, the ones from Latin America discussed the events more openly.

Burns, The Center: I would challenge your characterization that the gay community did not react immediately, or that there was silence or a vacuum. I don't think it's an accurate characterization.

Right that day [September 11], the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center sent medical providers where they were needed. The staff here at the Center set up a water station nearby. Mental health counselors in our staff set up crisis counseling. So did AVP [the New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project]. All these groups immediately began to provide services. The Stonewall Community Foundation opened a disaster relief fund. And gay organizations, including AVP, the Empire State Pride Agenda, and Lambda [Legal Defense and Education Fund] began to lobby the main disaster-relief funds to demand that they be inclusive. All of this took place immediately after September 11.

Indeed, lgbt people were invisible in the media. And it required a bit of hammering of the media for them to recognize that we're, indeed, everywhere. Mark Bingham got some recognition. A man who, sadly, did not get enough recognition as a gay man was Fire Department Chaplain, Reverend Mychal Judge. CNN has now done a story on the involvement of lgbt people in the disaster and our response to it.

This disaster has provided us with a grim reminder that in a time of crisis it's very easy to render us invisible and that we must be doubly aggressive in ensuring that we're visible. That's a battle that we all fight every day.

The Gully: Given the new situation, is the Center going to do anything different to ensure lgbt visibility or to face possible new emergencies?

Burns: No. We're not going to set up new programs, if that's what you mean.

The Gully: Not setting up new programs, but maybe doing things differently.

Burns: No, we're not.

Testone, GLAAD: When something this tragic and visceral happens, your first reaction is to get home. That was the reaction for a while: to go to your smaller community — family, friends — to touch them, make sure they're fine. It took a little bit of recovery until the larger lgbt community came together. At first, the reaction was personal — partner, home, neighbors — then it sort of branched out into something bigger.

The mainstream media coverage of September 11 lgbt survivors and people who died has been pretty disappointing. We're working on this at GLAAD in both a proactive and a reactive manner.

We reacted to a "Dateline NBC" television piece about Mark Bingham that did not mention at all that he was gay. Proactively, we have told CNN and other media that we're not saying we were any more or less affected than other people, but that the way we were affected was very unique. For example, gay men and lesbians cannot serve openly in the military, gay men cannot give blood, and we don't automatically get survivor benefits. So, we're planting the seeds for more and better media coverage very broadly and also very specifically.

The New York Times, which has been very inclusive of lgbt people in recent years, hasn't been these past few weeks. They were invited to the October 1 memorial at the Center, but didn't cover it. Part of the reason why their local lgbt coverage has suffered in recent weeks may be that they see themselves more as an international or national newspaper, and they sometimes give short thrift to local issues.

Coverage of lgbt people in the mainstream media is now getting better. But we need to be very vigilant about this.

The Gully: Is GLAAD going to do anything different given the current situation?

Testone: We do pretty delicate work. It's both cultural and media advocacy. We also battle with moral questions. We have developed ways to do this over the years, methods that have proven to be effective and that we will continue to use. We just need to work harder and be very vigilant.

The Gully: Is any community-wide follow-up being planned to the October 1 memorial at the Center? Do the 80 groups that co-sponsored the event remain in touch?

Duque: Not that I know of. GLAAD put that event together. I'm not aware of a follow-up. Queers for Racial and Economic Justice and the Audre Lorde Project are gathering signatures for a queer-based statement against war. And Latino queer organizations are referring immigrants affected by the September 11 attacks to Tepayac, a group that helps mostly Mexican immigrants. Some of these groups are in contact through the New York State Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Health and Human Services Network.

Burns: Many of these groups are always in touch because they belong to the New York State Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Health and Human Services Network, which includes 49 service providers from around the state, and is a project of the Empire State Pride Agenda. This is an ongoing coalition that meets regularly and works together to define a common agenda.

Testone: I'm not aware of a follow-up.

Related links:

For the Mano a Mano New York network connecting the Latino/Latina lgbt communities. For the Mano a Mano U.S. network.

For the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, New York City.

For the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the national media watchdog group.

For Civic Life and Death In The Gay Apple

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

For Complete Coverage WTC Attack

For Complete Coverage New York City

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Puerto Rico to Taiwan and more.

WTC Attack
Guide to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on NYC and DC. Includes info on Afghanistan and the Taliban.

New York City
News, opinion, and weekly headline review of New York City.

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