Five years later, he's an iconic image—a smiling man in a Cal ball cap. And everyone knows his story.
Early on September 11, 2001, passengers aboard a Boeing 757 from Newark began getting frantic cell phone calls from loved ones about planes that just had been hijacked and smashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. When hijackers emerged in their midst, the passengers realized that their plane too was to be used as a weapon and rose up to wrest United Airlines Flight 93 from the terrorists' presumptive Washington, D.C., target.
Powering the charge was 31-year-old Mark Bingham: rugby champion; PR firm owner; friend to hundreds; fervent University of California, Berkeley, booster; and gay man. His death—and, when his story hit the wires, his life—gave America an authentic gay hero.
I attended Bingham's memorial service—held, fittingly, on the Cal campus. More than 500 people packed Wheeler Hall to hear Sen. John McCain eulogize the man he said saved his life by diverting Flight 93 from the Capitol. Onstage with the Republican senator was Bingham's former partner, Paul Holm. This felt earthshaking: Only a few years earlier, Robert Dole had returned a campaign donation from the Log Cabin Republicans rather than be tainted by gays. The memorial held out hope of unity that Holm says Bingham, who moved effortlessly among many circles, would have appreciated.
Mark Bingham with his mother, Alice Hoglan
"Everyone should be proud of him—black, white, gay, straight, Bay Area, New Yorkers—because of his actions that day," says Holm, who was with him nearly five years. "We in the gay community should be particularly proud because his actions broke a lot of stereotypes."
Five years on, many would say the world has not lived up to the promise held out that day—not for homeland security, not for gays, not for religious tolerance, not for anybody. But the nature of heroes is that they impel us to seek the best.
So it's a good time to think again about Mark Bingham. The amazing movie United 93 is out on DVD. We list some of the many tributes made to him. And we visit some of his favorite places, as related by his friends, to get a sense of who he was and to feel close to a gay man who made a difference.
California Memorial Stadium, Berkeley, Calif.Getty images
Here's where our hero, class of '93, famously tackled the Wisconsin badger mascot at a football game, then later performed the same maneuver on archrival Stanford's Tree.
Bingham, three sheets to the wind during the 1992 Big Game, ran onto the field and sacked the Cardinal mascot, a guy in a huge, cumbersome tree getup. This time, he was arrested—cuffed and carted off to a Berkeley jail, his mother, Alice Hoglan, told Salon's Kevin Berger. His fingerprints from that arrest were used to identify his body in Pennsylvania.
Bingham's own sport, of course, was rugby—Cal's athletic claim to fame. He was a member of the 1991 team that won Cal the first of 12 consecutive national championships. If you want to catch a game, home pitch is just up breathtakingly rustic Strawberry Canyon at Witter Rugby Field.
Bingham's fraternity, Chi Psi, is a few blocks southwest of the stadium at 2311 Piedmont at Durant avenues. His fave local watering hole, Henry's, is a convenient three blocks west at 2600 Durant.
"He'd get up on the bar and dance when Cal won," recalls Holm. "Even when they lost too, depending on the game."
Since 2005, the California Alumni Association has bestowed an annual Mark Bingham Award on a young graduate of exceptional accomplishment. The inaugural award went to NASA's Wayne Lee, who led the team that landed two robotic rovers on Mars.
A separate Mark Bingham Leadership Scholarship, administered by the California Community Foundation, assists a Cal student who hews to the values Bingham held dear—including gay rights and Chi Psi.
But our story shifts to San Francisco, where Bingham started his career in PR (he'd eventually start his own firm) and, of course, played a lot of sports.