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Friday, September 11, 2015

Alice Hoagland Remembers Son and 9/11 Hero Mark Bingham in The Rugby Player

Posted By on Fri, Sep 11, 2015 at 3:30 PM

click to enlarge The Rugby Player is about more than Flight 93. It's about the bond between Alice Hoagland and her son Mark Bingham. - COURTESY OF WOOLF PR
  • Courtesy of Woolf PR
  • The Rugby Player is about more than Flight 93. It's about the bond between Alice Hoagland and her son Mark Bingham.

Earlier this week, Alice Hoagland was at home in Los Gatos, attempting to digitally render hours of videotape of her late son Mark Bingham, before returning the tapes to her brother. "I just wish that Mark was here to help me," she told SF Weekly. "He was always my best techie expert on this stuff." Bingham is best known as a member of the San Francisco Fog rugby team and the "gay hero" from Flight 93, who helped prevent hijackers from flying the plane into the United States Capitol and injuring myriad lawmakers.  Much of this footage, spliced with video shot by Bingham himself, has made its way into The Rugby Player, an award-winning documentary about Bingham and his equally courageous mother, a former United Airlines flight attendant, who, in her son's memory, continues to fight for airline safety and LGBT rights.  After screening in over 50 cities across five continents, the film makes its national television broadcast debut on KQED Public Television on Saturday, Sep. 12, at 6p.m. SF Weekly spoke to this proud mother about The Rugby Player, her son's bravery and the advice she wishes she could have given him on that fateful day.

What was your impression of The Rugby Player, the first time you saw it?

It's a very personal film for me, of course, because it's all about Mark, and he's my very favorite subject of all. The filmmakers have taken advantage of all the hours and hours of videotape my brothers shot in the process of Mark's growing up. 

It was really a treat to see minutes of those videotapes woven into the film. It was really nice to see Mark's life and incidentally my life played out and edited and honed down. Watching what the filmmakers have put together has given my life real meaning now. Sometimes it's hard to pick out the real gold nuggets from all the slush, and that's what they've done. It's just a lot of fun for me to watch it and be able to see my son again, living and talking and acting out. 

What's it like for you each time that Sept. 11 comes back around?

What I think about is, 'Oh no, the day is coming around,' and I dread it. I have to pull myself out of some pretty severe gloom, but once I can embrace the beautiful tributes to Mark that I get both locally and nationally and now internationally, it really helps me a lot and my low feelings about the day. I dread the day, but I'm also grateful for the love and support I get from people who remember Mark's memory.

Mark's heroism has given me the opportunity to grieve publicly, and I'm very grateful for that, for all the recognition that he and all the other brave guys that stood and fought on United Airlines Flight 93 receive. They saved the U.S. Capitol building and probably the lives of many of our lawmakers in Washington, and there's nothing you can do to top that. 

Mark Bingham is a gay icon. Yet in the film you describe the difficulty embracing his sexuality after he came out to you at 21.

I was reared as a midwestern, I went to a very conservative school at one point and I was sort of vaguely non-supportive of the gay community. So I was frankly taken aback when Mark sat me down and told me. Like some other parents I talked to about this, I didn't take it very well at first, and I'm very grateful to Mark for giving me the time and space to work it through, because as I was able to work it through, I realized that my initial response was so wrong.

I needed to rethink my silly attitudes about what it means to be gay, and here I am confronted by the fact that the person I love most in the world is a gay man. So being gay is not what I had attributed these traits to, so I had to rethink my attitude, and I'm glad I did. That's the reason it's easier for me to understand it and appreciate it and show patience to people who are not sympathetic with the gay cause. I think, 'I was there. I was like you once.' I think, 'Ok, we're going to evolve through this together.' 

In the film, it's said more than once that Mark defied stereotypes of gay men.

That's why the United 93 story was so good. It showed that a gay man can stand shoulder to shoulder with three or four burly straight guys and make a hell of a difference. They actually engaged these terrorists in the cockpit, and before they got to the cockpit, they had to knock a few of them out. So I think that Mark as a gay man and as a rugby player has been a good example for gay men and women.

I can remember having that conversation with him some time after he came out, and I remember him telling me, 'Mom, I regret that we don't have many gay heroes.' He had been watching television and seeing some of the silly, stereotypical roles played by gay people in these situation comedies, and he was kind of disgusted. I remember that conversation a few days after 9/11, and I remember thinking, 'Mark, you have set the bar pretty high. You've been a good example of a proud and strong gay man who stood up and fought.' He has really changed my life, and I'm really so proud that he's able to be there as a beacon for plenty of other gay men and women who were struggling to find and assert themselves in this pretty hostile world.

But I think it's important to remember that you don't have to be burly and masculine to be a gay hero.

It's a good point. I think that up until recently a lot of the so called straight population have had a misconception about the gay community. Mark happened to be a strong, masculine guy, but there are very many strong and masculine guys who don't go into sports and show their heroism in other ways. For example, the unnamed fellows in Saudi Arabia and other places in the Middle East, who go proudly to the gallows because they are gay and they're being persecuted and killed, and it takes a lot to stand there proudly and get yourself persecuted and killed. I think that there are very many gay people who deserve commendation and praise for being heroes in their own way.

click to enlarge Mark Bingham shot hundreds of hours of videotape over the last decade of his life. - COURTESY OF WOOLF PR
  • Courtesy of Woolf PR
  • Mark Bingham shot hundreds of hours of videotape over the last decade of his life.

Mark left behind hundreds of hours of video that he shot himself, capturing a lot of his teenage and college-age antics. In once troubling clip, he turns his camera to some heavy metal posters and says things like, 'Oh, that person's a faggot,' or 'That person's queer.' 

Yeah, I winced at that. I thought, 'Oh, do we have to have that in there?' But the filmmakers pointed out that this is a film about Mark's evolution as a gay man. Of course when he was making that remark about faggots, he himself was a faggot, if you will. He was trying hard to live up to whatever the straight notion of a man is, and he was making fun of gay people, which I guess was the thing to do. So it was important. I realized that the producers and director were alright, that it took Mark a while to become a proud gay man. So I think that in order for the movie to have value and be real honest, it was important to have that scene in there, as painful as it was.

On Sept. 11, Mark phoned you from his cell phone, saying: 'Mom, this is Mark Bingham. I just want to tell you that I love you. I’m on a flight from Newark to San Francisco and there are three guys on board who have taken over the plane, and they say they have a bomb. You believe me, don’t you, Mom?' People have asked how he could make a cell phone call from an airplane and why he addressed himself to you by his full name.

I didn't know that either. It was a great surprise to me, as a United flight attendant, that people could make cell phone calls in the air. But let's bear in mind that by the time the passengers started making cell phone calls, the plane had already dropped in altitude a long way to about 1,500 feet. That put everyone into a lot more danger, but I think enabled them to make cell phone calls. 

As far as addressing himself by his full name, Mark was a young professional guy. He was a business man and did a lot of business on the phone, and he got in the habit of saying, 'This is Mark Bingham,' when he'd start out phone calls. He had never done that to me, because he knew he was calling me, and he wasn't under a lot of stress. He hadn't just seen four or five people knifed to death before his eyes. But on that morning, he was trying to remain calm and convery a mesage of calm. So he lapsed into that, 'This is Mark Bingham,' and I kind of laughed about it later on. 

In the film, you describe how you called him back, leaving two messages encouraging him to take control of the plane.

If I had more time, Josh, because I'm a flight attendant and the inside of the 757 is my workplace, I would have said, 'Look, you can get cockpit keys from any flight attendant and there's even one near the cockpit just hanging on a wingnut, and you could just get it and you don't have to ram a card into the cockpit to get in there. But I was so rattled, I didn't think of it. I could have said, 'You could get some fire extinguishers and spray them or hit them with them, and there are metal knives and small glass wine bottles to crack over tables. I've relived that conversation in my head so many times, and I just wish I'd given him tips about how to contact people on the ground. But we were cut off. So I did the best I could in my limited mentality in that time.

You wouldn't hear Mark's voice again until you listened to the tape from Flight 93's “black box” recorder. What did you hear him saying or doing?

The first thing I heard him say was several minutes before the fight began, and I'm pretty sure it was when he was still up in first class, leaning over one of the first class passengers who'd been knifed. He said, 'Oh man,' and I'm pretty sure that was Mark's voice. Then 15 minutes later, you could hear Mark's voice mingled in with the others, saying, "In the cockpit." It sounded so much like a rugby game. You could hear, 'Get him,' and 'Hit him' and blows being struck, so Mark's voice was evident from a few minutes after until the very end. 

Ever since Mark's death, you have promoted aviation security, the eradication of terrorism, the reform of Islam, LGBT rights and rugby.  Did you have to forgive the terrorists aboard Flight 93 in order to move on?

Yes, in order to continue to be a fulfilled and productive human being, I needed to let go of anger. Yes, I forgive them, I suppose. But more importantly I'm going to work to supplant terorism in the world and to try to help Islamists who mean to hurt us to see a better way of life. So I could understand why parents would need to forgive because it's important, but I realize I am not going to be any good to Mark if I seize and am so consumed with anger that I feel from time to time. As I've said, I've got a misson to accomplish that I can't accomplish unless I'm calm in nature, and really forgiveness, as many people have made the point about this, is really something you do to help yourself.

You've fought so hard for marriage equality.  I imagine that Mark would be proud.

Mark has created quite a path for me to follow. I'm still trying to do it here, these 14 years after his death. According to Mark's friends, he was very in favor of marriage equality and I'm glad of it. I just wish I'd been able to have helped him find a nice boy and settle down, because he'd been playing the field for quite a while. I think by this time in his life he would have been long married with a couple kids, and I would have been a proud grandma.

I'm so glad that the gay community has come into its own. I'm so glad they're making movies about gay people and not trying to sweep their sexual orientation under the rug. The world is coming into its own, and I'm just delighted to see it. I just wish Mark were here to see it. 

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Joshua Rotter


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