6,000 and Counting

Brilliant Solos, Tender Duets

At a gathering earlier this month of LGBT journalists in Miami, a noted practitioner-critic was asked to defend his assertion that the gay press has an irretrievable liberal slant. After several back and forths on that issue, he settled on the observation that Gay City News reports the names of American soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I am confounded as to when commemorating members of the American Armed Forces who die under fire became a sign of a left-leaning sensibility.

As the death notices on the opposite page indicate, just over 3,000 Americans have now died as the result of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. The information contained there is all based, as best we can determine from Pentagon data, on fact. Those facts have no political meaning in and of themselves. There are names, ages, hometowns (except in one case this week), ranks, and military units.

Combined with the number of Americans and visitors to this nation killed in the terror attacks on 9/11, which was just under 3,000, the total tally of those who died as the result of Al Qaeda’s decision to assault the U.S. and of this nation’s specific choices about what to do in the aftermath by some weird quirk—at this precise moment of calculation—stands at 6,000 even.

Debate over interpreting those numbers and their meaning has roiled this nation’s civic discourse. Did the first 3,000 deaths make the second 3,000 necessary? Did our president ever say that they did? Have the second 3,000 deaths made deaths similar to those suffered on 9/11 more likely? Less likely?

Those are critical questions, critical American questions. I have very strong—and I believe, well informed—opinions on these questions. But in this debate, I am struck, more than any thing else, by the confusion among Americans about the very basic facts about the relationship between the two sets of 3,000 deaths.

So it all begins with facts.

Challenged with the argument that commemorating the fact of 3,000 new American deaths is not a matter of liberal versus conservative, the critic of this newspaper in Miami responded that the whole matter is not a gay issue.

Having lived in Brooklyn and worked in Manhattan in the days following 9/11—and for almost two decades before that—I find it inconceivable that this city’s LGBT community would ever attempt to or be able to seal itself off from the horror of that experience, or from the debate about how our nation has responded in its wake. The events since September 11, 2001 have at their essence been a New York tragedy, an American tragedy.

And our integration into American life will never be full until our community recognizes its inseparability from the whole of that tragedy.

The 9/11 victim who was identified as number one by the New York coroner’s office was Father Mychal Judge, the genial and well-known Fire Department chaplain. To many who knew him intimately and loved him greatly, Judge was a gay man. Yet in the weeks following the tragedy, the press tip-toed gingerly around the question of the dead Catholic priest’s sexuality. It was only when his close friend Thomas Von Essen, the former fire chief and an irreproachable heterosexual witness, talked about Judge’s sexuality in a New York magazine article, that the media let out its breath, stopped worrying about finding a man Judge had slept with, and told the simple truth.

Yet, in the years since then, Judge’s friend Brendan Fay, the producer of the wonderful “Saint of 9/11,” has constantly caught flak from critics for daring to tell that truth.

U.S. military policy forbids open service by gay and lesbian soldiers, though we all know that many serve, and some die. We can’t say for certain who the Mychal Judges of Iraq and Afghanistan are, but their names are somewhere on the lists we print.