SAN FRANCISCO — Mark Bingham was a strapping 220-pound, 6-foot-5 rugby player who had fought off muggers on the street and run with the bulls in Spain before taking on the terrorists on United Flight 93.
One of the heroes to emerge from America’s biggest tragedy, Bingham has also become a symbol of hope to the nation’s gays — a man whose sexual orientation made no difference when lives were at stake.
“I think Mark was always my personal hero,” said Paul Holm, Bingham’s former partner of six years. “We didn’t run around waving gay flags, but we were very proud to be gay and if people asked, he told them.”
Flight 93 was en route from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco on Sept. 11 when Bingham, 31, called his mother saying they had been hijacked by three men who said they had a bomb. Bingham, sitting within reach of the cockpit, is believed to be one of those who fought the terrorists and caused the plane to crash into a Pennsylvania field instead of its apparent target in Washington.
Now, liberals and conservatives alike invoke Bingham’s name as an example of America’s strength and spirit.
California’s top politicians presented Holm with an American flag, and San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno wants to build a Bingham memorial in the city’s predominantly gay Castro District.
“If he knew that lives were at stake, I’m convinced with every bone in my body that he would have jumped into action,” Holm said. “He was physically fit and strong and guns and weapons didn’t bother him.”
He fought off muggers in New York and San Francisco, wrestling a gun away despite being hit on the head. Over the summer, he was gored while running with the bulls in Spain.
Bingham, who lived most of his life in Northern California but moved to New York not long before the terrorist attacks, also was a proven leader. He had coached his gay rugby team, the San Francisco Fog, was president of his fraternity at the University of California at Berkeley and started his own public relations firm, the Bingham Group, in San Francisco and New York.
“He was a true competitor, and it went from everything from Scrabble to card games,” Holm said.
Recently, after his rugby team was accepted into the straight California Rugby League, he e-mailed a pep talk to his teammates.
“We have the chance to be role models for other gay folks who wanted to play sports, but never felt good enough or strong enough. More importantly, we have the chance to show the other teams in the league that we are as good as they are,” Bingham wrote.
“Gay men weren’t always wallflowers waiting on the sideline. We have the opportunity to let these other athletes know that gay men were around all along — on their little league teams, in their classes, being their friends. This is a great opportunity to change a lot of people’s minds.”
Among gays, reactions to Bingham’s death are a mix of pride and sadness, frustration and hope.
“I wish people could just understand that wherever they go, they will meet us. It’s just very sad to me that it takes a brave young man like Mark Bingham to lose his life so horribly for people to begin to understand that,” said Cleve Jones, a gay activist who created the AIDS quilt in San Francisco.
Jones choked back tears as he talked about a soldier boyfriend being shipped out to the Middle East. He said Bingham’s heroism should serve as the catalyst that ends the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays.
“I think this would be a very good time for the president to put his name on a piece of paper and end this stupid policy,” Jones said. “We are all needed.”
The attacks have helped lead to some political change: Republican New York Gov. George Pataki decided that partners of gays killed in violent crimes can get benefits from the New York Crime Victims Board.
“Do you think for a minute that one of those men or women fleeing the towers trying to save themselves ... do you think one of them thought for a minute, ‘I wonder what the sexual orientation of that fireman is?”’ Pataki said. “This is still the greatest country in the world, but we can make it a little better. We can learn a little bit from Sept. 11.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a supporter of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” wants Bingham and other Flight 93 passengers to get a Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest civilian honor. Bingham, a Republican, had met McCain briefly and wanted to see him elected president.
“I may very well owe my life to Mark and the others,” McCain said in a tearful eulogy.
Bingham is not the only gay hero to emerge from the attacks. Nine others killed on Sept. 11 were remembered at a memorial attended by nearly 1,000 people at New York’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.
For many, the testimonials were a profound counterpoint to suggestions by televangelists that God let the attacks happen because of the influence of gays, feminists, abortionists and others.
“One of the things I found most painful of this whole experience is that the trade center is still smoldering and they’re still dragging bodies out and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson can’t do anything but go on TV and blame this on the ACLU and gays and lesbians,” Jones said.
Falwell later retracted his remarks.
Bingham’s mother, Alice Hogland, said she hopes her son educated others by destroying preconceptions.
“He was a very masculine, crazy kid who left his dirty dishes under the bed and dirty clothes behind the door in the bathroom,” she said, laughing. “There was nothing about him that fit into any stereotype of what we perceive of as a gay person, which goes to show you we cannot rely on our stereotypes.”
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