9/11 Voices: LGBT Leaders and First Responders

By Julie Bolcer

Originally published on Advocate.com September 09 2011 4:00 AM ET

Retired New York City firefighter Tom Ryan remembers sitting
at the computer on his day off the morning of September 11, 2001, when he
received an instant message that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. He
immediately called his firehouse, Ladder Company 12 in Chelsea, where a
colleague relayed information that prompted him to race toward the site and reach
the scene of devastation shortly after the second tower collapsed.

The voice on the other line belonged to Angel Juarbe, one of
few firefighters to have expressed support for Ryan, the first and at that time
the only openly gay man with the New York Fire Department. Juarbe would perish later that day, one of
five members lost from Ladder Company 12, and among nearly 3,000 who died in
the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania that
touched LGBT people individually and collectively as Americans.

“They were there as firefighters, they were there as cops,
they were the victims and the rescuers,” says Ryan. “It’s just like in the rest
of life.”

In interviews leading up to the 10th anniversary
of 9/11, LGBT voices in New York recalled a time of shock, chaos, and compassion
when they came together to help the wider community while tending to the unique
needs of their own population laid bare by the unprecedented disaster.

Because of its location, the LGBT Community Center in the
West Village of Manhattan became a gathering place for those seeking to offer
assistance and grieve on September 11 and in the following days. The center is
located steps from St. Vincent’s, a hospital that closed last year but at the
time of the attacks offered a Level I Trauma Center less than two miles north
of the World Trade Center.

“We were right next to St. Vincent’s, so when this happened a
lot of staff members went right in line,” says executive director Glennda
Testone. “There was a line around the block to give blood. We know now that
wasn’t actually needed because there were not as many survivors as one would
hope from 9/11.”

Workers from the center also provided impromptu assistance
to survivors as they streamed north, covered in debris. Water, snack bars, and
shoes were in high demand, and in the following days, calls for counseling
came, some from people who lost their partners with nowhere else to turn,
others from traumatized witnesses at elevated risk for substance abuse.

“I think in many ways the response was very unified as New
Yorkers, as Americans, people were just shocked,” says Testone, who at the time
worked for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which joined more
than 30 LGBT groups in organizing a memorial at the center. “There was a lot of
trauma and a lot of sadness. But there was a moment when the additional
barriers that LGBT people face were raised in this time of crisis at 9/11. It was
another example of yes, when something terrible happens, as LGBT people we
experience it, but there’s an added impact that comes from not having equal
rights and protections.”

One of the organizations that sponsored the memorial at the center on October 1 was the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. By then, Jeff Rindler, who
worked as assistant director of program volunteers had experienced weeks of
working around the clock to serve clients affected by the disaster.

“We were obviously in shock but we made a decision not to
close,” says Rindler, now the managing director of program services and
evaluation. “Clients were really experiencing this on a very, very deep level
because it was bringing back that huge loss all at once that so many felt all
at once in the early stages of the epidemic. GHMC was ground zero in 1981.”

The 18-year veteran of the HIV/AIDS services agency recalls
performing three intakes of new people on September 11, serving more than 150
meals, and bringing tuna fish sandwiches to first responders the next day.
Staff members continued to provide in-demand mental health and prevention
services, and somehow they came up with 60 cell phones so that clients could
stay in touch.

“What I remember is a real sense of community and a real
sense of coming together,” says Rindler. “It brought clients closer, made them
more tolerant, more open, more understanding. It certainly changed how I viewed
the world, people, the human spirit.”

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Others remember the interminable waiting. Deanna Croce, then
a case manager at the Hetrick-Martin Institute for LGBTQ youth, made her way to
the organization’s East Village headquarters after witnessing the devastation
downtown just seven blocks from the World Trade Center. She arrived to find the
chaos of phone calls as staff members and youths in attendance for the regular
school day froze to await news of loved ones who worked at the Twin Towers.

Now a supervising counselor at Hetrick-Martin, Croce recalls that the
violence and bullying faced by many of the youths on a daily basis did not
cease during the disaster.

“One of the kids was gay-bashed in the middle of it,” she
says. “Their nose ring was ripped out. Tensions were high, and people saw this
group of kids and then attacked. It was in the middle of the day.”

Croce worked with the students that day, but she did not see
the homeless population served by Hetrick-Martin in the afternoons as the city shut down
on September 11 and in the following days. Their absence raised a haunting
question faced by homeless LGBTQ youths in any disaster that tests the limits
of a society.

“You’ve got really resourceful young people, but when you’re
hit with these extraordinary times, the plans don’t work anymore,” says Croce.
“What if you’re LGBT? Where do you go?”

Ryan, who retired from FDNY in 2003 after more than 20
years, remained at ground zero for eight days
performing the “devastating work” of rescue and recovery while spending nights
in the firehouse. Later in the week, he attended the funeral for Father Mychal
Judge, the gay FDNY chaplain killed by debris on 9/11 when the South Tower
collapsed. Although the men were not close, he became a pallbearer for Judge by
accident when another person carrying the Franciscan priest’s casket wavered.

A former president of Fireflag/EMS, a group for LGBT first responders,
Ryan believes the shock of losing 343 firefighters and the wave of retirements in
subsequent years ushered in change marked by new, younger recruits that has
made it somewhat easier to be openly gay in the FDNY. However, every year on
the anniversary, he remembers those whose contributions go unspoken.

“I think the part of 9/11 that we still need to talk about
is that there were gay people there,” he said. “You can’t lump 9/11 into one
category. It was an attack on America, but it goes to the issue of what America
is.”