Harvey Milk was born in Woodmere, New York, on Long Island, not too far from where JFK International Airport is located. In 1951 he graduated from the State University of NY at Albany and then joined the U.S. Navy where he served in active duty in the Korean War. After four years of service, he was honorably discharged, but always claimed that he was part of the all too frequent anti-gay “clean-ups” conducted by the U.S. military. Throughout his life, Harvey wore a brass belt buckle showing the Navy insignia.
After leaving the Navy in 1955, Harvey lived in Dallas and then in New York City where he first worked as an investment banker on Wall Street, not far from where the World Trade Center would be constructed from 1966 to 1973. Harvey also worked in theater and is credited as associate producer for a number of productions including the musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.
In 1972, Harvey moved, with his partner to San Francisco where they opened up a camera shop at 575 Castro Street, in the famous Castro Street gay ghetto. Harvey distinguished himself as a community leader and became spokesperson for the neighborhood’s businesses in their dealings with city government. He launched the first Castro Street Fair in 1974.
In 1977, in his third attempt, Harvey ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He convinced gays, lesbians, seniors and various ethnic minorities, that they could have a voice in city government. Some gays showed their backing by creating "human billboards" at busy intersections. They were willing to do for Harvey what so many feared doing; they were “outing” themselves to get him elected.
Third time lucky, in 1977, Harvey finally won. He was the first openly gay male elected official in the United States. As Supervisor, he represented District 5, which included the gay Castro Street Village. Needless to say, the gay community was ecstatic to witness their delegate’s historical triumph. On election evening, Harvey spoke to his supporters: "This is not my victory -- it's yours. If a gay man can win, it proves that there is hope for all minorities who are willing to fight."
During his eleven months as a Supervisor, Harvey championed a gay rights bill for the City of San Francisco which was the very first gay rights legislation in the U.S. In November of 1978, he also was a key figure in defeating California’s Proposition 6, which would have permitted the outright firing of openly gay and lesbian teachers based on their sexual orientation. Not only was Harvey fighting hard for the gay community and winning, he showed, back in 1977, that you could be gay and “out” and be a successful public figure. And yes he did have quite a sense of humor, "Never take an elevator in city hall," he once quipped to his boyfriend, “The marble staircase affords a grander entrance.” His instincts told him that gay progress would come through gay visibility. Ironically, it was at this time, that former pop singer, and orange juice queen, Anita Bryant, was conducting her anti-gay crusade across America.
Dan White was a disgruntled former City Supervisor who had quit his job in opposition to the recent passage of Milk's gay rights ordinance. Shortly after, he asked Mayor George Moscone, for his job back but was refused. Believing that Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk were responsible for his hard times, Dan White was angry and bitter. On November 27th, 1978, armed with a gun, White snuck into City Hall by crawling through a basement window. He then climbed the stairs to Mayor Moscone’s office. Once inside, White, asked Mayor Moscone again if he could be re-appointed to the Board of Supervisors. When Moscone said no, the conversation turned ugly. Realizing he would not get what he wanted, White suddenly pulled out revolver and shot the mayor twice in the abdomen and then twice more in the head, killing him.
Dan White then went to Harvey Milk's office on the opposite side of City Hall. There, White shot Harvey Milk at point blank range; three times in the chest, once in the back and then twice in the head. White fled as chaos reigned at city hall. He later turned himself in at a police precinct where he’d formerly worked as a cop. In his confession he insisted that his actions had not been premeditated.
Thousands of San Franciscans attended a candlelight vigil the night of Harvey Milk's funeral. Milk had foreseen the possibility of his assassination and had recorded several audio messages to be played in that event. One of these included the words, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."
During jury selection, White’s lawyers eliminated anyone they deemed "pro-gay." During the trial, they brought in a psychologist to testify that Dan White had been in a state of depression which led him to consume too much junk food and it was that, which had led to the shootings. This was dubbed, “The Twinkie Defense.”
For two cold blooded murders, White was convicted, not of premeditated murder as had been expected, but only of voluntary manslaughter. He was subsequently sentenced to a mere seven years and eight months in prison. Everyone knew that the sentence was not only a mockery of justice, but also of the gay and lesbian community.
As soon as the verdict was heard, exasperated and outraged gays headed for City Hall and by 8:00 p.m., there was a sizable crowd gathered. They started yelling at police officers and denouncing the injustice of the verdict. Riots broke out with the demonstrators setting several police cars on fire, blocking traffic and breaking store and car windows. The angry protesters ripped down the overhead wires of busses and assaulted police officers. This night of gay rage on May 21st, 1979, would become known as the White Night Riots.
Many were arrested but San Francisco chief of police emphasized that no one was dead and only a few had minor injuries. In truth, more than 160 people were hospitalized because of injuries incurred during the rioting.
In 1984, the life of Harvey Milk was shown in a gem of an Academy Award-winning documentary called, The Times of Harvey Milk. The film was narrated by the renowned, gay playwright and actor of Torch Song Trilogy fame, Harvey Fierstein. Also in 1984, a book biography of Milk by Randy Shilts entitled, “The Mayor of Castro Street,” was published. More recently, the biographical film Milk (2008) made a considerable stir in the movie industry. It was directed by Gus Van Sant; its screenplay was written by Dustin Lance Black and it starred Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. The laster two won Oscars for their work. It had been nominated for a total of eight Academy Awards.
Harvey Milk is remembered as a martyr for gays and the gay rights movement everywhere. He was one of the greatest catalysts for coming out and seizing power that the movement has ever known. He demonstrated the importance of gay people in public leadership roles as opposed to just getting by with non-gay friends of the community as our voices in government. On October 14th, 1979, the year following Harvey Milk’s killing, 100,000 people marched in the First Gay March on Washington in support of gay civil rights, with many chanting "Harvey Milk Lives". Harvey Milk was chosen by Time Magazine as one of the hundred most important people of the 20th century. To this day, every year, on the date of his assassination, November 27th, an evening candlelight walk on Market Street serves as a reminder that he is still very much loved and remembered.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky May 7th, 1840 – November 6th, 1893
Around the time I turned thirteen, the Sudbury Figure Skating Club, to which I’d belonged since age five, began to plan its spring show. The head pro, Patrick Kazda, was also a ballet teacher. He decided, that we would present a version on ice of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. Mr. Kazda selected me to skate a solo to the Trepak number, which is a Russian Cossack dance. My mom, at a local Ukrainian club, borrowed a costume of red satin pants, a waist sash and a white, baggy, cotton shirt with richly embroidered cuffs and collar.
In that number, so perfectly choreographed by Patrick Kazda, I was able to include some of my best jumps and spins, but also some great Cossack dance moves. On the toe picks of my skates I sprang up and down doing those famous Russian “sit kicks.” For a surprise ending to the routine, after three consecutive Russian split jumps, I went into a sit spin and just on the final accented beat of the music dropped onto the ice, ending up sitting with my legs opened in a V shape in front of me and my arms outstretched. The audiences loved it!
During the performances of this “ice ballet”, instead of stretching backstage when I wasn't performing, I would watch every number: the Chinese Dance; the Arabian Dance; the triumphant Waltz of the Flowers, etc. The music was mesmerizing and it seemed to me that Tchaikovsky was an artistic genius like no other.
Later in my life while I was studying music history at university, I learned much more about Tchaikovsky. In Tsarist Russia, being openly gay meant being ostracized and perhaps being severely punished or imprisoned. Consequently, homosexuals would marry for social acceptance. In Tchaikovsky’s case, in his late 30’s, he wed Antonina Miliukova, who had been his student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. They exchanged vows on July 18th, 1877. While still on his honeymoon, Tchaikovsky realized it could never work. Just two weeks after the wedding he walked into the frigid waters of the Moscow River attempting to end his life and the marriage in one fell swoop.
Bad luck was followed by good luck in the form of a wealthy widow, Countess Nadezhda von Meck. As well as giving financial support of 6,000 rubles a year, von Meck was a great devotee of Tchaikovsky’s music. With her, Tchaikovsky had a platonic relationship and exchanged some 1,200 letters over 13 years starting in 1877. At Countess von Meck’s request, they never met face to face. They did, however, by happenstance, see each other in public on two occasions, but did not speak.
Tchaikovsky reached great fame in his lifetime. His ballet Swan Lake premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1877. His opera Eugene Onegin premiered in 1879 at the Moscow conservatory. He toured the USA in 1891 conducting performances of his works. In May of that year, with the composer leading the orchestra, his Marche Solennelle was performed at the grand opening of Carnegie Hall in New York City.
On October 28th, 1893, Tchaikovsky conducted the premier of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique. Believing that it was a masterpiece, he became despondent when it received a tepid response from the audience. Just six days later, and still in his early 50’s, Tchaikovsky died. Biographers first recounted that his death had been caused by cholera. Later, theories of suicide were put forth.
When, Tsar Alexander III, received word of Tchaikovsky's death, he insisted on mounting and paying for a state funeral. For the service on November 9th, 1893, the Kazan Cathedral was filled to a capacity of 6,000, and many more thousands of Russians lined the streets of St. Petersburg to pay their respects to the master. The coffin, on a hearse, was pulled through the streets and to the cemetery by three impressive pairs of horses. Tchaikovsky's family, members of the imperial family, state officials and members of the clergy, followed the hearse.
Until the fall of the Soviet Union, Tchaikovsky's homosexuality had frequently been denied by Soviet musicologists. Finally there were so many documents made public that the truth could no longer be suppressed. It has been written that Tchaikovsky’s lovers included, Alexey Apukhtin from his student days; Vladimir Shilovsky, an affluent young man whom he became involved with at the Moscow Conservatory from 1868 to 1872, and who paid for the travels that the two took together; his aide from 1872 to 1893, Alexei Sofronov; his pupil Eduard Zak; his nephew Vladimir Davidov to whom he dedicated the Symphonie Pathétique; and the pianist Vassily Sapelnikov who traveled with Tchaikovsky on a tour to England, France and Germany.
I wish that back when I was thirteen, some good, gay guru had taken me aside and said, "Since you love his music so much, why don’t you go to the library and find a book about Tchaikovsky? Oh, and by the way, did you know he had male lovers throughout his entire life? Isn't it amazing that so many great artists are that way?”
If you are a classical music buff you need no recommendations on what to listen to in Tchaikovsky’s vast musical output. If you are not, I recommend a few of his most loved works: The First Piano concerto in B flat minor, the 1812 Overture and, of course, The Nutcracker Suite. These pieces exhibit the elements that have made Tchaikovsky a hero of such longevity in the world of classical music: soaring, yearning, emotive melodies; richly intriguing “Russian” chord changes; and, a certain poignancy that could only come from one so sensitive, who knew melancholy like an old friend.
Russian figure skating pair, Yelena Bechke & Denis Petrov skate to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker (Pas de deux) at the Albertville Olympics 1992, a performance that won them the silver medal:
Street procession at Tchaikovsky's state funeral in November 1893