Steve Grand, a formerly unknown singer/songwriter from Chicago, hit a nerve of longing and reconciliation with his County Music ballad of unrequited love, “All-American Boy.” In less than two weeks since Grand put the video up on YouTube, the song has received nearly a million hits, measuring up favorably against the offerings of some of the most recognizable names in American music. What makes “All-American Boy” so compelling at this time in our culture is the way Grand’s breathtaking roll-of-the-dice for love, approval, and self-acceptance touches the nation’s soul.
Betting everything on one video, Grand maxed out his single credit card and drew on the kindness of friends to put together the story of a campfire crush that leads to a single kiss, and then to a gentle, heartbreaking rebuff. All the elements of the familiar story of unreciprocated love are there: desire, forlorn hope, vulnerability, the awkward kiss, rejection, and then the disappointment and the aching hurt that go with it. But Grand injects the story with a crucial twist that only could work today: the unrequited lover and his object of desire are both men.
Grand’s back story provides the spiritual energy that connects his song with the life experiences of so many people. The child of a Catholic Midwestern family who discovered his attraction for his own gender at age 13 in Boy Scout Camp, Grand came out to his disapproving parents who put him through several years of “straight therapy.” It didn’t work. Closeted but gay, Grand struggled with shame and self-doubt into adulthood, feeling like a disappointment to his parents, and led a furtive life so many gays and lesbians can relate to. Music gave him joy and passion, but to make ends meet, he took odd jobs, modeling stints, and, ironically, singing gigs in churches. Finally, unable and unwilling to endure the self-betrayal of the closeted life, Grand came out as gay in one, stunning moment, telling his story to the world in “All-American Boy.”
The soul of America is responding to Steve Grand in a powerful way, searching for reconciliation between LGBTQ people and a heterosexual majority who are striving to understand them. Spiritually, reconciliation is more compelling than rejection, since its motive energy comes from love. It is the power that drew pagan Ruth to Hebrew Naomi, the force that reconciled the Prodigal Son first to his father, and then to his older, disapproving brother. It is the way of justice the prophets walked, paving the way for estranged humanity and a seeking God to reach out to each other and embrace.
In a time of seemingly hopeless political gridlock in Washington, war fatigue at home and anxiety over Egypt, Syria, and the Middle East, not to mention frustration with the NSA’s invasion of personal privacy in the name of national security, Steve Grand’s gracious, plaintive song cuts through the defensiveness and aggression of this age. It is the pure invitation of a son to his parents, of a lover to his beloved, and of millions of oft-rejected citizens to their country: “Be mine.”
Hundreds of thousands have taken Steve up on his offer so far. He has remained humble in his newfound success. The only thanks he says he wants is in the email messages from people who recognize their story in his. His greatest moment so far is the admission of his mother that she and his father are finally proud of him, just the way he is. The “All-American Boy” is reconciling with himself and his world, and now Steve says he is truly happy and at peace for the first time in his life.
Steve Grand is no media messiah, no lawyered-up diva . . . yet. May he never be. He is enough like most Americans that we feel the pull to reconcile at least some of our differences with each other when we hear him sing. His heartfelt cry awakens something in the American spirit Abraham Lincoln called, “the better angels of our nature.” Perhaps songs and stories like Steve’s will prompt more healing and understanding between gays and straights than any legislation or court ruling ever could. Of course, there will be losses. Unrequited love does not have to end in bitterness and despair, however. It may become the engine of a future reconciliation, an invitation not to settle with failure, but to get ourselves up, reach out again, and pursue the peace we all long for.
2,996 people died on that awful day, including the 19 men who hijacked four airliners, and 2,977 victims. Among the victims were the 246 passengers aboard the planes. 2,606 died in the Twin Towers. 125 died in the Pentagon. The vast majority of victims were civilians. At the Pentagon, 55 of the fallen were military personnel.
Of the heroic acts on 9/11, none were greater than the sacrifices made by the first responders. The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) lost 343 personnel that day. 75 firehouses suffered the loss of at least one member of their team. FDNY also lost its chief, its commissioner, its marshal, its chaplain, and many specialty and administrative personnel.
Collateral losses of first responders due to illness and injury sustained on 9/11 continue to this day.
Unfinished Lives salutes the fallen of 9/11 by choosing one among them all to serve as their representative: Fr. Mychal F. Judge, OFM, Chaplain of FDNY, who died offering comfort and assistance to the dying and wounded in the lobby of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Witnesses testify that Fr. Mychal died when debris from the falling South Tower rocketed into the North Tower Lobby with a velocity of over 100 mph. The medical examiner certified that Fr. Mychal succumbed to blunt force trauma to the back of his head. His victim number is 0001, acknowledging that his body was the first to be recovered and carried from the scene. Among the unforgettable scenes of that awful day, the image of Fr. Mychal’s lifeless body being borne away by his comrades, a modern day Pietà, is a stand out. He was an exemplary man, a dedicated priest, and, among other dimensions of his life, a gay man unafraid to own who he was among his colleagues and before the world.
Amidst the terror and the death of 9/11, the courage, loyalty and love of Fr. Mychal stands for the suffering and hope of all the fallen and their families. Much has changed since the trauma of that day, but the wounds to the American consciousness remain fresh. May we never forget. May we honor the dead by rededicating ourselves to improve the circumstances of the living, even as we strive to create a better world.