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...televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were the only proof that queers had ever existed in America...

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Antoine Jeudy holds a photograph of his daughter Farah Jeudy, 31, who worked in tower two of the World Trade Center. Kathy Willens

Civic Life and Death In The Gay Apple

by Ana Simo

OCTOBER 31, 2001. Remember the neutron bomb, the diabolically smart weapon that could ostensibly snuff the entire population of a city, while leaving most of its buildings intact? It seemed like we were hit by one on September 11, when the entire queer population of the United States was wiped out of the nation's consciousness without a trace. For the next few weeks, televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were the only proof that queers had ever existed in America, as they blamed us, among others, for the disaster.

There were no openly queer faces — of any shape, color, or gender — among the hundreds shown on TV, rescuing, grieving, opining. No mention of queers in the print media, until the eminently suitable Mark Bingham (GWM, 6'5", rugby player, single, Republican) was discovered and turned into an icon of patriotic, gay masculinity for resisting the hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 93.

That queers ceased to exist for the media was not entirely, or even primarily, the media's fault. After all, how can you cover something that you don't see or hear? By and large, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community remained oddly silent in the weeks that followed the September 11 attacks.

By not reacting immediately, and publicly, to the biggest civil catastrophe in recent U.S. history, we erased ourselves from the nation's civic life and public discourse. The media just drove the last nail in the coffin we ourselves built.

Queer Black Hole
Nowhere was the queer black hole more alarmingly evident than in New York City, where the modern gay rights movement was born 33 years ago, a mere two miles north of the World Trade Center crematorium.

Our normally loquacious queer institutions, politicians, and activists remained uncharacteristically silent as New York burned and bled. And the rest, the silent masses of ordinary queer folks, had nowhere to go, no place where they could publicly connect two passionately felt identities: their being queer and their being New Yorkers.

Three days after the disaster, I went to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center on 13th Street, the site of much of the organized queer life in the city. The Center was open that afternoon, no small feat considering its location and the acrid dust still wafting from the WTC. It was also eerily empty.

I asked the receptionist if the Center was doing, or planning to do, anything in connection to the disaster. She looked at me incomprehendingly. That the Center could, or should, do anything at all about this was clearly a novel idea to her.

At the Center's administrative office, where she sent me next, my question was also met with glassy-eyed stares from the staff. I was asked to repeat, explain, and elaborate the question. I obliged, but only got increasingly blanker stares. Finally, one of the employees icily snapped, "Well, we're open. That's what we're doing." My time was, clearly, up.

I didn't go to The Center that day as journalist, but as a civilian. I wanted a place to grieve lost New York with my own people. But as I left the building that day, The Center might as well have been in another planet and another time. It felt distinctly un-New York. Around the corner, I stood in front of Saint Vincent's Hospital as ambulances careened in and throngs of people clutching pictures of their disappeared milled around. In the distance, one could see the smoke from the WTC. This was the real New York.

Three Weeks of Silence
It was not until about three weeks after the massacre, on October 1, that there was a community-wide response: a memorial held at the Center, attended by about a thousand or so people. Significantly, the event, co-sponsored by some 80 community and AIDS groups, was the brainchild of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the media watchdog group, in collaboration with the Center. GLAAD had been pushing hard for mainstream coverage of queers in the aftermath of the catastrophe.

The queer community's institutions and leaders seemed paralyzed before an event that was not in their job descriptions, mission statements, or political agendas. They were deaf to their own community's grief, and mute. It was as if they, and by extension, we, their silent constituents, did not feel entitled to speak as Americans, about America, or as New Yorkers about New York.

They, we, seemed to lack the larger vocabulary, though all that was needed right then was the vocabulary of collective grief, one that we're practiced in. Unlike dozens of community groups, civic, cultural, and religious organizations, we didn't even put an ad in a local newspaper reminding the world, and ourselves, that queer New Yorkers were united with the rest of the city in grief.

The message sent was that being queer is a highly specialized existential state. One that is suspended during emergencies. One possibly incompatible with other existential states, such as being a member of a certain race or culture. In short: a state of being incompatible with having a civic existence, particularly with being a citizen of a stricken city.

After The Shock
True, once our institutions recovered from the initial shock, they did, and well, what they are programmed to do: provide services to our community. The New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project and the Empire State Pride Agenda, the statewide queer political lobby, vigorously mobilized to make sure queers got disaster benefits. So did the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, whose Wall Street office was without power and phones for about a week. The Center offered grief counseling and crisis intervention services. GLAAD, whose mission probably made it the most attuned to the larger picture, ferreted out queer-themed news stories and posted them in its website.

These were all pragmatic tasks, necessary, but insufficient. Leadership, especially in times of crisis, is more than the efficient execution of tasks. It's about civic life. And in the queer community, no institution or leader bridged the civic gap in the weeks following the WTC catastrophe. None connected us to the city, or the country, where we live and, now, die by the hundreds.

Our collective silence after the WTC catastrophe revealed that the connections between queer institutions and civil society are still relatively few and far between, and that they are heavily weighted toward social services, political lobbying, and funding. These connections, and the institutions that specialize in them, have been shaped by the realities of our disenfranchisement and the need to overcome it. They have also been shaped by how we define a "gay issue."

The sign of a mature community is an intricate network of connections to the larger society, at all levels, and at all times. On September 11, the lack was painfully clear. Creating those civic connections is possibly the most urgent task if we are to thrive and survive in a city, and nation, that sees itself at war. Self-inflicted erasure will cost us some of the modest social and political gains we have achieved so far. At the very least, we risk losing the momentum for social progress.

One question now is whether the existing queer institutions, and even activist groups, traditionally focused on community-building or specialized tasks, will be an asset or an obstacle. Should they change? Should new queer civic groups be launched to close the gap?

Nowhere is this more urgent than in New York City. We know it could happen here again. And we know it could be much worse. Are we going to remain silent and paralyzed as a community if a bomb goes off in Grand Central Station at rush hour and kills 10,000 people? New York City is not an inanimate piece of real estate. It's not a cardboard backdrop to our demonstrations and infighting. It is a living thing. It's time we show our collective face 'round the clock. Business as usual just won't do.

Related links:

For remarks by Kate Clinton, October 1, 2001 memorial at The Center.

For Why Queers Were Silent

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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