Our heroes

Whether it was by saving lives or simply living life to its fullest, gay men and lesbians were among the thousands of Americans who, on September 11, showed humanity’s true spirit

BY Mubarak Dahir

October 08 2001 11:00 PM ET

In her 15th-floor
office on Wall Street, Peg Byron, 45, communications
director for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, read
of the first crash on the Internet. She then heard the
other plane exploding into the second tower. She
scrambled outside and had a clear view of the World
Trade Center. “You could see a gash, and you knew
people were dying,” she says. “But we
didn’t grasp the magnitude.” After she
returned to her office, the south tower collapsed, and
Byron’s building was immediately evacuated.
Coughing, she pulled her shirt over her mouth and groped her
way outside into a street scene that was harshly different
from the one she’d seen just minutes before.
Particle-clogged wind had turned the clear day gray.
“It looked like a hazy winter afternoon,” she
says. The grainy air stung her eyes, coated her hair
and clothes, and pricked her skin. She kept spitting
grime to clear her mouth. Punching fruitlessly on her
cell phone to reach her father, she joined hundreds of numb
New Yorkers in an uncertain march to an uncertain
future.

It was 10:05 a.m.
when the south tower of the World Trade Center
disintegrated into a graveyard of steel, concrete, and ash.
The collapse violently shook the north tower
elevator—where Chris Young was still
trapped—for the third time that morning.

“I really
started to freak out then,” he says. “I
thought that whatever was wrong, it should be under
control by now.” Then, for the first time, he
tried to pry open the doors. It was impossible. He tried
again when the power went out in the building 20
minutes later, and they opened easily.

When he was
finally able to step out of the elevator, Young discovered
he had been marooned on the first floor the entire
time. Fallen building parts and shattered glass
covered the lobby floor. Everything was coated in pink
and gray dust. No one was in sight. Dazed, he just stood
there for a moment until two firefighters yelled,
“We’ve got to get you out of here!
Run!” Two minutes later Young felt the earth shake
for a fourth time. And as he sprinted from the
building, he looked over his shoulder and saw the
north tower crumble like a sandcastle.

In the hours and
days that followed the catastrophe, life for gay men and
lesbians in New York City and Washington, D.C., completely
changed—as it did for the rest of the nation.

The southern tip
of Manhattan—including the gay mecca of Greenwich
Village—became a militarized zone. Only residents
flashing photo IDs could pass beyond the patrolled
border. At the far end of Christopher Street, military
and fire trucks zoomed up and down the West Side
Highway. A closed sign hung in the window of the famed
Stonewall Inn.

Overnight,
“thousands of fliers of missing persons went
up,” recalls Jeffrey DiGangi, a 36-year-old
designer from the West Village. Lampposts, sides of
buildings, and telephone booths were wallpapered with the
images of lost strangers.

But in the
devastation, there was also a sense of community that many
had not seen since the worst days of AIDS. Another
West Village resident, 39-year-old Gary Spino, says he
walked around the neighborhood those first nights
“because I wanted to be with others, and the streets
were filled with gay and lesbian people. Everyone was
crying and hugging.”

Spino eventually
made his way to the Hudson River and joined friends from
his gym in a human assembly line—spreading mustard on
bread, piling on lunch meat, slicing tomatoes, and
bagging sandwiches, fruit, and cookies into care
packages for the rescue workers.

“It was
the greatest thing I’ve been a part of in
ages,” he says. “It wasn’t about
being a gay person or a straight person or a financial
person or an artist. There were little women in nuns’
outfits standing next to gym bunnies in tight shorts,
and we were all pitching in together.”

In this issue,
The Advocate salutes some of the brave gay men
and lesbians who gave their all—sometimes their
lives—during the attacks. We tell their stories
so that their voices as American heroes, and
particularly as gay and lesbian citizens, are not lost.

But we know these
are just some of the tales of loss and courage. In the
coming days, as more names and stories of American heroes
are unveiled, other gay men and lesbians will surely
be among them.

The Advocate joins the the nation not just in
mourning our collective losses but also in celebrating
the finest our community has to offer.

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