Federal benefits awarded to lesbian 9/11 survivor

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com January 24 2003 1:00 AM ET

The lesbian partner of a woman killed in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon has been awarded more than $500,000 from a federal fund created to compensate survivors of the attack's victims, reports The Washington Post.

Sheila Hein, 51, a civilian Army employee who worked as a management analyst, died when a hijacked American Airlines jet slammed into the Pentagon. Hein left behind Peggy Neff, with whom she had shared an 18-year relationship and a home in Virginia. When rescue workers found Hein's remains, she was wearing a gold band that Neff had given her.

"Words cannot express what I have lost," Neff wrote in an affidavit filed with her federal claim. "She was my entire world and my soulmate, my closest confidante, and my best friend."

Unlike same-sex couples in New York, who were eligible for state aid, Neff, as a resident of Virginia, was not. Virginia law limits the benefits to spouses, parents, grandparents, siblings, and children. But Kenneth Feinberg, special master of the victims compensation fund established by the Department of Justice after the terrorist attacks, concluded that Neff, who is in her mid 50s, is entitled to compensation.

"This is a huge step forward for the federal government," said Jennifer Middleton, an attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represented Neff.

David Smith, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based gay advocacy group, which also assisted Neff in the case, said, "To our knowledge, it is the first time the federal government has recognized that someone in a gay relationship should receive compensation. It is our sincere hope that this signals that other gay families who have suffered the loss of a loved one will be treated similarly."

It is unclear whether the decision will become a precedent for other compensation claims filed by domestic partners. The federal compensation for survivors of September 11 victims is being decided case by case. "It's much too early to tell that this will establish a precedent," Smith said, "but it certainly is a first."