Between the Line

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

Richard Burnett
After witnessing the horror of the hijacked bombings and collapse of New York City’s World Trade Centre’s twin towers, I think it’s safe to say that life can be divided pre-September 11, and life post-September 11. Except perhaps for queers. That’s because, for gays and lesbians, life did not change in one crucial way: we were largely ignored in post-mortems worldwide, as the media coverage of grieving wives, husbands, their children, friends and families heterosexualized the victims and heroes of September 11.

As I wrote in a popular and extremely contentious installment of my column Three Dollar Bill (Sept. 27), entitled ‘The Winds of War’, “Washington, D.C. politicos and the mainstream media the world over have unwittingly or deliberately ignored the contributions of gay and lesbian people, and only heaped praise on straight heroes.”
The gay sexual orientation of such September 11 heroes as all-American rugby player Mark Bingham who helped tackle his flight’s hijackers before United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a rural field in Pennsylvania; American Airlines Flight 77 co-pilot and first officer David Charlebois, who left behind his partner of 14 years, Tom Hay, and Chance, their dog; not to mention Father Mychal Judge, the Catholic chaplain of the New York fire department, killed by falling debris when the World Trade Center collapsed, and given a hero’s funeral by the FDNY the following week.

“In other words,” I wrote, “our contributions to society are rarely acknowledged, but we were the first to be blamed by American Christian fundamentalists [Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson] for the bombings [because queers, they charged, are trying to “secularize America”]. Ironically, as America prepares for war against enemies unseen, the Pentagon has suspended all military discharges based on the U.S. military’s hated “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy enacted in 1993. Now that America is at war, gays and lesbians are finally worthy enough to fight and die for their country.”

Well, following publication of my column, the shit hit the proverbial fan. In fact, it was more like a landfill. And I can pretty well draw a line right down the middle, with most straight folks on one side, and queers on the other. That is to say, most hets scolded me - and tons did - for daring to demand the media point out the sexuality of the victims and heroes. “It is tasteless and tactless,” they wrote, “But most of all it is irrelevent.”

Queer readers, on the other hand, were positively effusive. “Where did you find out about Bingham, Charlebois and Judge?” one reader wrote. “I couldn’t find a gay angle anywhere.”

Well, there were plenty of gay angles, but you had to search high and search low. In other words, you pretty well had to turn to exclusive gay-news sources like I did, such as NYC gay paper LGNY, or Window Media’s Texas-based Southern Voice. Of course, America's gay newspaper of record, The Washington Blade, had some gay-angle coverage of the twin tower bombings, and in the weeks following most everybody else picked up stories filed by my San Diego-based friend, colleague and widely-syndicated columnist Rex Wockner.

But the mainstream media? Barely a peep, though there were some notable exceptions.

FDNY chaplain Father Mychal Judge, who was killed while performing the last rites on a fallen firefighter at the World Trade Center, has been celebrated in much of the media coverage. But while known to many, The Village Voice (Sept. 19-25 edition) - in a profile entitled ‘For Whom the bell Tolls’ - contained the only mainstream mention to date of Judge’s identity as an openly gay man, which I later wrote about in Three Dollar Bill (Sept. 27).

Reporter Carol D. Leonnig’s brief Sept. 13 Washington Post article remembering David Charlebois, co-pilot of the American Airlines Flight 77, was among the earliest mentions of openly gay victims of the Sept. 11 attacks - and, to date, one of the few to acknowledge Charlebois’ sexual orientation and partner (although Tom Hay is not named in Leonnig’s article).

People magazine, in an article entitled “Above and Beyond” (Oct. 1), was one of the many magazines to report on the role Mark Bingham likely played in diverting United Airlines Flight 93 away from a potentially high-profile target and into a remote field southeast of Pittsburgh. People, however, was the only publication I read that pointed out Bingham was gay.

“A national championship rugby player while an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, Mark more recently played for the San Francisco Fog, a gay rugby team that [his mother] Alice says ‘he was especially proud of’,” People reported. “In an e-mail to a friend, Mark explained, ‘I finally felt accepted as a gay man and a rugby player. My two irreconcilable worlds came together.’”

Well, to mainstream America, not to mention straight folks around the rest of the world - including Canada - those two worlds remain irreconcilable. When I try to explain the heterosexualization of the victims and heroes of September 11, straight folks insist I am wrong to point out their sexual orientation.

“No one’s pointing out that this hero or that hero is straight,” one reader wrote me. “So why must you point out that this other person is gay?”

My stock answer at this point is, “Well, no one mentions that the straight victims and heroes are straight because heterosexuals always assume everybody is straight. But when the only grieving families profiled in the media are those of straight victims and heroes, the press unwittingly reinforces notions that queers are not worth writing about and don’t have loving, extended families. Instead, they give moral force to the stereotype that our lives remain nothing more than a spotty chronology of lies, divy nightclubs, police raids, Pride parades and a gay plague called AIDS. Our media absence and erasure in the days following September 11 is proof of our moral turpitude. Therefore, homophobes interpret, it’s alright to bash gays and lesbians in towns and cities across around the world, if not in the streets, then from the pulpits. After all, who the fuck cares about some butch dyke, drag queen or nelly faggot?”

Well, most people and family I know do and until the day comes when the heterosexist hets who make up the vast majority of humanity finally and fully embrace queers of every stripe, in every country around the world, we will continue to be swept aside, back in our closets, no matter our contributions on September 11.

Richard Burnett’s syndicated queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill can be read locally in Hour magazine and The Ottawa X Press, as well as on the web at, on (click on the “scene” link and scroll down to TDB), and on (click on the “issues” link and scroll down to Richard Burnett).