Domestic Partners Stiffed

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After the Twin Towers collapsed there was a lot of grandstanding about how the attack had "equalized" New Yorkers and all Americans. We're all victims, the pundits opined, regardless of race, creed, gender or sexual orientation. And for a while it seemed the outpouring of sympathy and the opening of everyone's wallet would indeed provide every WTC victim with some form of compensation.

As it turns out, all victims are not treated equally. Tom Ryan has been a firefighter since 1982. But if he had died on Sept. 11, his partner of the past eight years would not be entitled to one cent of his pension. "I would've died thinking my partner was taken care of, and he would've been totally screwed." Ryan, a firefighter in Chelsea's Ladder Co. 12 for the past three years, is gay. And he says that the partners of gay firefighters are being overlooked by New York state. Ryan's been the president of FireFLAG/EMS?an organization of gay firefighters, EMTs and paramedics?since 1998.

The firefighters' pension fund is run by the state, even though about 45 percent of it is city money. If a firefighter dies in the line of duty, the state dictates that the pension goes to the spouse or children. Prior to Sept. 11, Ryan says, he made the incorrect assumption that domestic partners were included under existing law. But while New York City allows gay residents to register as domestic partners, the state does not.

Because of the culture of the FDNY and NYPD, surviving partners of gay and lesbian firefighters or police officers have been reluctant to speak up and demand a fair share of 9/11 funds. "I know for sure that there were gay firefighters and cops killed [on Sept. 11]," Ryan says. "We haven't heard if they had partners."

However, 22 women in heterosexual domestic partnerships with cops or firefighters have been pressuring politicians at the state level. A bill has been introduced to compensate them?but it would not apply to gay domestic partnerships. Ryan says he was told by his union reps that there's reluctance to "bring the gay issue into it."

At a recent City Council hearing on the issue of compensation for the partners of gay victims, one lesbian who was in a relationship for 15 years with a civilian killed in the WTC told her story. "She's been cut off from everything, and blood relations have stepped in," says Ryan.

Kenneth Feinberg, special master of the Sept. 11 Fund, has indicated that gay and lesbian partners of victims will be considered for compensation, based on applicable state and local laws. A bill passed last month in Albany specifies that it's "the legislature's desire that [same-sex partners] be eligible for federal fund awards," according to the Empire State Pride Agenda. However, the bill does not change existing state law to put same-sex partners on the same level as married spouses of Sept. 11 victims.

Ryan faults gay and lesbian activists for not demanding real domestic-partnership benefits from former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Gov. Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg. In the meantime, domestic partners are eligible for small sums (under $20,000) made available by a coalition of gay and lesbian organizations including the Empire State Pride Agenda and the NYC Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project.

"I feel that the rug has been pulled out from under me," Ryan says. "I was a fool. I thought that New York City had the best domestic-partnership laws in the country. I feel like we were at a birthday party and we were given a present, but you open up the box and there's nothing in it."

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