In nine weeks, America will commemorate the 10th anniversary of one of the country's greatest tragedies: the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Mark Bingham, a gay PR executive and enthusiastic rugby player, was among 44 passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 that the hijackers aimed for the US Capitol. Already planes had crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On board Flight 93, Bingham, 31, was told by his mother Alice Hoagland by cell phone of the suicide mission and he, along with Tom Burnett, 38, Todd Beamer, 32 and Jeremy Glick, 31, lead an effort to take back the plane – which crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Gay 9/11 hero Mark Bingham hugs his mom, Alice Hoagland, one photo in the new documentary "With You"
Since Bingham was a film buff, much of the documentary is old home movies shot throughout his life, including his "mullet" days as a fan of heavy metal. Ironically, Bingham shares his birthday on May 22, though 40 year apart, with another LGBT hero - Harvey Milk. And like the movie and documentary on Harvey Milk, With You has the potential to inspire LGBT and questioning youth and provide another role model who breaks the stereotype of how society thinks a gay man is supposed to behave. On 9/11, like a civilian soldier, gay Mark Bingham gave his life for his country.
A few days after 9/11, reports surfaced that Bingham was a supporter of "maverick" Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and the conservative was invited to speak at Bingham's memorial.
According to Bay Windows, McCain was moved to tears, saying:
“I love my country and I take pride in my service but I cannot say I love it more or as well as Mark Bingham did or the other heroes on Flight 93....
It is now believed that the terrorists on Flight 93 intended to fly the plane into the United States Capitol where I work, the great house of democracy where I was that day. I very well may owe my life to Mark Bingham and the others who summoned the enormous amount of courage and love necessary to deny those depraved hateful men their terrible triumph. Such a debt we will incur for life. I will try very hard to discharge my public duties in a manner that honors their memory.”
McCain called Bingham a personal hero:
“He supported me and his support is now among the greatest honors of my life. I wish I had known before Sept. 11 just how great an honor his trust in me was. I wish I could have thanked him more profusely as time and circumstances allowed but I do now and I thank him by the only means I possess, by being as good of an American as he was.”
Remembering that, I called on Sen. McCain to apologize to LGBT servicemembers after he spoke so callously about their service during the debate on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. How could he praise the ultimate sacrifice of gay civilian Mark Bingham and denigrate the sacrifice of LGBT servicemembers who step up and lay their lives on the line everyday?
I asked Mark Bingham's mom Alice Hoagland about this during an interview in advance of the With You sneak peek screening. Truthfully, I was taken aback by her candor and graciousness toward McCain. I expected her to say that Mark would have been disappointed in McCain - like so many other gay independents and Republicans who once so appreciated McCain's iconic "maverick" leadership. Instead, with that infectious positivity that's become familiar to those who've seen Hoagland on TV talking about airline safety and the 9/11 families, Hoagland said McCain is "evolving" about LGBT issues, just as she had to do.
Here's my interview with Mark Bingham's mom, Alice Hoagland, interspersed with photos from the film of Mark Bingham growing up:
"I'd be going out on a limb if I tried to characterize Mark's political opinions. I don't really know if he was a Republican. I know that he was gay and I know he supported John McCain. But as far as being a Republican - I can't swear that he was. I don't know.
It was only after Mark's death that Sen. McCain's name and his became so intertwined. But I imagine Mark admired Sen. McCain for the same reasons I do - he was a decorated war hero and a POW who spent years at the Hanoi Hilton and he has - I guess - represented his state of Arizona ably and well. I couldn't say that Mark supported his position on the LGBT community's causes at all.
But of course, I am very grateful to Sen. McCain for making the effort and bringing his wife Cindy - who I admire very much - to Mark's memorial there a few days after Sept. 11. That was really touching.
I was touched by the way Sen. McCain spoke so tenderly of Mark's memory and the way he acknowledged the pain and the sweet memories that were expressed during that memorial service by the scores of Mark's friends.
Mark Bingham loved the teamwork in rugby
I think Sen. McCain – like Mark and like me and like many people - is on a journey, he's on a quest and he is evolving in his attitudes and his convictions, just as we all are. I think Sen. McCain will - I hope - ultimately come to embrace the gay community and realize that people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender deserve every freedom and right and privilege that the straight community has enjoyed all these decades.
I think Sen. McCain is, to some extent, hampered by the old stereotypes and false beliefs about gay people and to that extent, it's up to us as the gay community - and I'm making myself an honorary gay person - to show Sen. McCain and others who cling to those old and false beliefs, that it is time to throw off those stereotypes because they just aren't true and they don't serve us well. They don't serve the people who believe them well. Don't Ask, Don't Tell was a poorly conceived notion and it deserves to go in the dustbin of history.
So I think we need to be patient with Sen. McCain and the many, many military people that he represents who are still entertaining unflattering and untrue stereotypes of what it means to be gay.
With You is a rugby teamwork term used by the nearby wingman to whom a player with the ball can make a pass. The documentary could also be described as the making of a gay athlete who shatters stereotypes. Hoagland said:
For me watching that film was the very first time seeing many scenes in my son's life. It was really wonderful in that respect.
Who does fit the gay stereotype? The trouble is nobody fits it very well. So we need to help the straight community dis-abuse itself of the notion that gay people are what - timid and lacking in bravery or retiring and unreliable on the battlefield? That has proven itself to be false by gay men and women who have not bothered to make a grand show of their bravery and their initiative in military tough situations. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Sen. McCain fought alongside men who he assumed to be straight who were not straight. So he - like me - we are both going through a learning process and we are evolving and we are changing. And just as I am continuing to examine my stereotypes and my false notions and reject them when I find them to be false, I fervently believe that Sen. McCain, who is a thinking man, does the same thing.
Mark Bingham into mullets and heavy metal
You think I'm giving him too much credit (laughing) In the last analysis, a new generation has arrived and the generation behind him is coming up so the old ideas - as with every generation - will be swept away and only the good will stick, only the important and true will remain.
We talked about the intimacy that occurs during sports such as the huddles in rugby and football. Hoagland said:
“I don't remember his name but I remember this one remarkably well-spoken gay man that I met at an HRC event shortly after 9/11 who confided in me that when he was in high school, he played basketball hard for his high school team. And the coach threw around gay epithets and during one game when they were in the clinch and the pressure was on for them to perform or lose the coach said to them, " You - and so and so and so and so - all except for Olson there - you're all acting like a bunch of fags! And Olson thought to himself, "Well, hey, I'm the only 'fag' here!" So he was the personification of the falsity of epithet that was being hurled. But he didn't have the hutzpah or whatever to speak up at that point. But he confided that to me and I'm really glad to see that there are more and more gay athletes who are willing - if not to speak up - to show by their example that they can be strong, they can be team players and they can make a difference.
Mark Bingham the young rugby star
And that's the way it went on 9/11, too, on board Flight 93. Nobody was asking, "Are you gay or straight - or what are you before they could join this little clique of guys that ran forward and tried to bust into the cockpit. Nobody cared. I'm pretty sure that Mark Bingham was leading that charge when he was trying to get a couple of, shall we say less enthusiastic folks out of the bathroom to come and help with the effort to take back the airplane. He was always like that - to the point that some of the junior team members on the San Francisco Fog [soccer team] complained that he was mean to them. I've seen him do that.
It's important to be able to assert yourself and galvanize people and Mark had all of that and he happened to be gay. And if my son was like that - that means to me that there are thousands of gay people who are like that.”
There's a scene at the end of the documentary where a young player thanks Hoagland for not just showing up at the rugby games and honoring Mark as a gay athlete - but for being a stand-in mom to so many gays who lost their families after coming out. Hoagland choked up a bit: “It breaks my heart when I hear stories of young gay people - and middle aged gay people - who are separated from their families because of their sexual orientation. To me that's crazy.”
Mark Bingham as a young boy
But Hoagland also candidly conceded - as she does in the film - that it was difficult for her to accept Mark's homosexuality when he first came out:
“When my son first told me, my subconscious mind just rejected it. I acknowledged and believed it on an intellectual level but it took me a while to really come to grips with it and accept it. And when I did, in a matter of months, I guess, I became grateful then that Mark had enough confidence in me and love for me and thought enough of me that he wanted me to be one of the first people in his life to know something very fundamental and true about himself. Even though he knew that my attitudes towards gays was vague and not accurate. I would say that I was vaguely antigay -imbued with stereotypes. I've had to fight through that. I am one of those lucky human beings that has done an about face and rejected a lie and embraced the truth. But I wish I had had the courage and goodness of heart to do that on my own.
But it took my son to do that for me by acknowledging, by telling me - challenging my stereotypes and telling me, "Mom, I'm gay." Because of him, I have gone on a different journey in my life. And with all the important things in my life - and all the accomplishments that I have - most of them have ben because I had a little boy who grew up to be a man who set me on an important life's quest.”
Hoagland acknowledges she has "black moods" but she remembers that "it's important for us to respect - and to the extent that we can - to love one another and to accept one another with all of our faults and all of our differences because at the core, we are brothers and sisters."
In particular, she is happy that Mark had a family support system and found friends, coaches, mentors and "gay parents" who helped him develop his character:
Mark Bingham and his close friend Todd Sarner who served as a consultant on With You
“I'm so glad he had good associations. I can remember Mark talking to me about what it was like - how he agonized about how he was going to tell his mom. When he first began to realize that he was gay, probably about the age of 10 - and he said, "Mom, you always told me if I had a question about something to go to the library and research it. And I did. I went to the library and I found out that homosexuals - as they called them - were perverts that would come around in public bathrooms waiting to seduce young boys. And I thought, oh this must be awful to be gay."
And when I hear Mark explain that to me about the travail he had as a pre-teen, I began to realize what a void there is when it comes to role models for young gay people growing up. I think Mark would approve - but I've tried to point out and live by example to young gay people that there are many, many gay role models - not nearly as many as there should be - but there are many more than a generation ago.
Mark often spoke about the shortage of role models - and I wish Mark could have seen then what it was going to be like for him on the day he died. What his role would have been on Flight 93 and what his role was all along in his young adulthood, through his college years.
I'm really very honored that Mark has become a role model for young men and women who are gay coming up behind him. It really does me good that Mark - who expressed dismay that there were so few role models - has become a role model himself.”
With You illuminates many issues: the absurdity of perpetuating gay stereotypes, the need for companionship and mentoring – and that Mark Bingham's most profound role model was his truth-embracing mom, Alice Hoagland.