SINGING OUT PROUD: FROM ABBA TO GAGA
AGMC is partnering with several LGBT organizations to present this summer’s concert, Singing Out Proud: From ABBA to GAGA, and we are set to rock your world. AGMC will pay tribute to Harvey Milk (left), America’s first openly gay man elected to public office, who was gunned down in his office 35 years ago, just after he encouraged the gay community to form groups and organizations like the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus. We’ll also celebrate pop music of the last 35 years that has held us steadfast during the tough times, featuring the music of Cher, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Diana Ross, and others. There’s a big wow factor in this convergence of history and gay iconic pop music, and we are stoked.
No one could capture the essence of Harvey’s life and career without writing a fully-fledged opera, but musical theatre composer Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party, The Addams Family and Broadway-bound Big Fish) gives us a stunning glimpse into the politician’s life and career in a work that is part oratorio, part musical theatre. This non-linear work highlights pivotal moments in Harvey’s life and career. It doesn’t provide every detail of Harvey’s story, so I thought some might find helpful this brief outline of Harvey’s eleven months in office as a San Francisco City Supervisor. Those of you who know Harvey’s story might appreciate a refresher course. Others not quite fully abreast of your gay history may want to read on. It’s important to know who this man was. And I can think of no better time to share this than today, his birthday.
I began my own refresher course with a viewing of the definitive documentary of Harvey. Even before the title The Times of Harvey Milk appears on the screen, it is riveting. It begins with what was no doubt the most difficult moment in Diane Feinstein’s life, delivering to the press in her role as President of the Board of Supervisors a shocking statement: “Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot…and killed.” It was November 27, 1978.
The reaction from the crowd was very un-press like. Gasps, names taken in vain…shouting. Control of the room was momentarily lost as Feinstein tried to hold it together. Before she was whisked away, she declared that a suspect was in custody: another city supervisor by the name of Dan White. Next in the film, you hear the unmistakable voice of another Harvey — Fierstein — introducing the subject and the man. Then you hear a recording made by Harvey Milk that begins with, “This is only to be played in the event of my death by assassination…” Harvey received death threats and was preparing for the clear possibility that someone would make good on them. He even predicted that he would likely die of a bullet wound to the head. It is an eerie moment — one of many in a film that began production shortly after Harvey’s death and was completed five years later. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1984.
HARVEY’S TIME IN OFFICE
So what were Harvey’s accomplishments, why did he receive death threats, and why did he believe someone would actually kill him? A few years earlier, he announced his first campaign for City Supervisor — a failed one — on a soap box. (He actually had a wooden crate on which he had painted, in large letters, “SOAP.”) With the aid of a megaphone, Harvey would just stop on a street corner in District 5 and begin speaking. In a few short years, Harvey went from a long-haired hippie in bell-bottom jeans to the clean-cut man you see in classic photos like the one below. It seemed unlikely that he would ever get so far in politics, but he triumphed in late 1977 when he was elected to the city Board of Supervisors, representing District 5. District 5 included Castro Street, where Harvey had opened a camera store that served as the unofficial headquarters for his election. Harvey’s platform was simple: minorities of all kinds should come together and maximize the strength they had in numbers. He didn’t just fight for gay rights and ethnic groups, but for senior citizens and the handicapped. Going up against Feinstein, Harvey campaigned for particular voting machines that would make the most sense for the elderly and for people who spoke other languages. This and other efforts, including an ordinance that required people to clean up after their dogs, gave Harvey credibility with all the people of his district; but at the end of the day, Harvey really did have a gay agenda. His first great accomplishment was helping to pass legislation that ended discrimination against gay people in the workplace. While Harvey was campaigning for this ordinance, Senator John Briggs claimed its passage would lead to chaos, that cross-dressing teachers were going to be seen in the classrooms, and that children would be subjected to molestation. After the supervisors voted 10-1 in favor of the legislation, Mayor George Moscone gladly signed an ordinance preventing anyone from losing their job for being gay. The dissenting voice amongst the supervisors was that of District 8’s representative, Dan White — a man whose surname was synonymous with Harvey’s, but who held very different views, the depths of which would prove to have fatal consequences for Harvey.
THOSE FOR AND AGAINST HARVEY’S WORK
John Briggs did not give up the fight, however. His efforts were refocused with the introduction of Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative, designed to mandate the firing of all gay teachers and their supportive colleagues. Briggs took his cues from Anita Bryant’s hateful campaign that turned over a ban on discrimination against homosexuals in Dade County, Florida, just a short while before. Harvey and those like him knew how ridiculous this was, but there were many, many followers of Briggs. The senator’s best argument was that children had to be protected from as many potential threats as possible. Harvey’s public response was always: “Then fire all teachers, especially straight male ones.” Governor Ronald Reagan spoke out against the anti-gay measure, as did President Jimmy Carter, other leaders, activists, and college professors who would join Harvey in the fight. But as the debate continued, Dan White jumped on the band-wagon with Briggs. As the campaigning for Prop. 6 gained momentum, Harvey continued to make speeches encouraging gay people to come out, always providing ways and means. He suggested that gay people form groups, clubs, and associations where they would feel supported. Happily, Prop. 6 was voted down, and in his follow-up speech, Harvey stated that we must now start “shattering the myths about who we are” and start coming out. As Harvey put it, “You will feel so much better.”
Soon after, Dan White — defeated, angry, and childish — gave up. His idealistic visions were not becoming the realities he had hoped for. White hastily resigned his position on November 10, 1978. But after thinking about it over the weekend, he came crawling back, wanting to be reinstated. Legally, White could not take back the resignation. The mayor was faced with either reinstating White or appointing a replacement. When Moscone made it known that he would consider White in the appointment, Harvey went to his office and protested. White had been a thorn in the side of the Board of Supervisors and Harvey pointed out that there would be great animosity if he came back. The mayor also received complaints from residents of District 8, most of whom lost faith in White and doubted his reliability. During that week, however, many came forward in support of White, who was not giving up the fight.
WHITE’S DRASTIC MOVE
On Monday, November 27, the mayor planned to announce the new supervisor, and it was not going to be Dan White. Having advance knowledge that he would not be re-appointed, Dan White went to the mayor’s office unannounced, pulled out a loaded gun, and fired three shots into Moscone’s head. He then re-loaded his gun and walked down the hall. Harvey was in the hallway and White asked if he could see him briefly in his office. Moments later, the first bullet struck, bringing Harvey down. Two more shots were fired from a distance, and a final two at very close range. There was no need to call the press. They were already there, expecting an announcement from the mayor regarding the vacant supervisor position. Instead of being greeted by him, however, it was Feinstein who met with reporters. It was then that she delivered the bone-chilling announcement. As word spread, about a hundred people made their way to the steps of City Hall. All stood in silence as the bodies were removed from the building.
A CITY RESPONDS
The reverence of those who’d gathered that morning inspired an evening candlelight vigil in which people planned to walk silently from Castro Street in District 5 down to City Hall. There was no internet, no texting, no cell phones, just word of mouth and phone calls — many, many calls. It is hard to believe that thousands upon thousands of people participated in this amazing, non-violent outpouring less than twelve hours after the murders. Harvey would have been pleased to see the public react in such a thoughtful way to the death of any elected official, and he would have attempted to squelch any violent response to it. The seeming lack of anger was profound at that moment. There were reports of a man on the street watching everyone and shouting, “Where is your anger?” According to many who made the trek, it was there, it just wasn’t the time to show it. Thirty to forty thousand people made the journey that evening.
WHITE’S TRIAL, CONVICTION, AND DEATH
Although White (right) immediately confessed, it took three full days in court for the supporting evidence to be presented. What followed was the infamous “Twinkie Defense” that argued White suffered from a chemical imbalance that led to a moment of insanity. Having the advantage of a sympathetic jury, White received a conviction of voluntary manslaughter and a sentence of only seven years. That night, (35 years ago last night) the anger that had been held back came out with a vengeance. Harvey would not have wanted it, but City Hall was attacked, doors forced open, windows broken, and a host of empty police cars parked nearby were set on fire. Some claimed that the riots were not started by the people, but by White’s violence and the disregard for human life demonstrated by the jury. The same voices argued that physical property could be replaced, but the lives of these two men could not. The violent events of that evening would become known as the White Night Riots.
White was sent to Soledad State Prison where he served five years of the seven-year sentence. He received parole and was released on January 7, 1984. White was required to remain in Los Angeles for a year, after which he moved back to San Francisco to attempt to rebuild his family life. His marriage failed, however, and his wife and children left. On October 21, 1985, Dan White took his own life.
HARVEY’S LEGACY: THE FORMATION OF THE AGMC
In the weeks and months following Harvey’s death, many people who participated in that candlelight vigil would find the strength to come out. Thanks to Harvey, they had no more fear of losing their jobs, and because of his sacrifice, they could not hide their secret any longer. In a speech following his campaign victory, Harvey said he hoped gay people across the country were hearing that he had been elected to office. He figured they were probably considering their options: moving to San Francisco, or doing what he felt would serve them better — electing gay people in their own communities, and as always, forming clubs and groups. A choral director by the name of Jon Reed Sims heard one of Harvey’s empowered speeches and decided to create an instrumental ensemble that would identify as gay and lesbian. What emerged is what we now call the Freedom Bands. Almost simultaneous was his founding of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, which held its first rehearsal on October 30, 1978. Rather than have its fourth scheduled rehearsal on the night of the vigil, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus gave its first performance — on the steps of City Hall. Mendelsson’s “Thou, Lord hast been our refuge” would provide comfort to those who were still in shock or had already begun to grieve.
Just three short years after its formation, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus took made a ground-breaking tour of the United States. Atlanta musician Jeffrey McIntyre heard about the tour and also learned of an album the chorus had released. After managing to get his hands on a copy of that vinyl recording, he listened to it repeatedly. Intense emotions were soon channeled into impassioned action, just as Harvey would have wanted. Notices went out, phone calls were made, a rehearsal location secured, and in September of 1981, a group of 45 men gathered for the first rehearsal of the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus. The rest, as they say, is history.
And clearly, history repeats itself. Today we continue to fight the same war. We’re on a different battlefield, perhaps, but it’s the same war that Harvey was fighting. The AIDS epidemic no doubt set us back in the political struggle, but as we’ve gained more control over the disease, we’ve gained political momentum. I believe we’ve reached a tipping point, but as we anxiously await a certain Supreme Court ruling, I believe we are also poised, and — if need be — armed and ready to pick up right where Harvey left off.
I AM HARVEY MILK
Andrew Lippa’s I Am Harvey Milk speaks to Harvey’s childhood experiences, the teachers who inspired him, his love of music, the election, life in San Francisco, and his tragic death. The work ends with two powerful movements: “Leap” and “Tired of the Silence,” which features an excerpt from a speech made by Harvey during his term in office. The Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus will present the Eastern U.S. premiere on June 28, two days after the world premiere in San Francisco. Craig Waldrip will play the role of Harvey in Atlanta and will be joined by Melissa Arasi, soprano, and Sam Greene as Young Harvey. More information about tickets will be available on our website soon.
After the concert, our plan is to take a short break and invite audience members back for a panel discussion featuring Erik Milk (great-nephew of Harvey), AGMC Founding Artistic Director Jeffrey McIntyre, a representative from Emory University’s Hope Clinic (a sponsor of the event) and others. The discussion will focus on how we continue to live the legacy of Harvey Milk, how the struggle is not over, and what Harvey might say if he were with us today. This stimulating exchange is included in the ticket price for all audience members. (Note: Members of the panel will not necessarily be the same for all three performances. Check the blog for updates on those scheduled to appear at each.)
MORE ON SINGING OUT PROUD
We have been inspired by this wonderful opportunity and cannot wait to share it with you. In the coming weeks, I’ll give you more details of the second half of our program, a celebration of music that has gotten us through the toughest of times — times like the late 70’s when we lost a great leader: Harvey Milk, hero.
He would have turned 83 today.
Kevin Robison, Artistic Director
Sources: nytimes.com; sfchronicle.com; milkfoundation.org; usatoday.com; “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984 documentary film); Wikipedia; YouTube; SFGMC.com; kqed.org. Special thanks to Jeffrey McIntyre. Every effort has been made to provide accurate historical information. If you find errors, kindly post them in comments and we’ll get them corrected.