I'm a gay man of a certain age. My age ("age" as in "epoch") is that time just before AIDS became known as "AIDS" in the U.S., otherwise known as the late 1970s and early '80s. I kissed my first boy when I was 19, way back in 1984. His name is Dan. He lives in Chicago. But that's another story. I kissed a boy when the world I came from, the Jewish suburbs of Detroit, didn't have a place or a nice name for a boy like me. In those days you didn't go from being a "nice Jewish boy" to being a "nice Jewish gay boy." Nobody I knew was gay. Nobody I knew knew anybody who was gay (except Adrienne Adler, who had a friend named Alan, who was a few years older than I and scared me to death because he was, well, so gay, but that's another another story).
In the year of my bar mitzvah (the aforementioned epoch), Harvey Milk stepped into elected office in faraway San Francisco. I didn't know anything about this guy until I was a lot older. And then, one day in 2011, some other guy named Tim Seelig emailed me. Tim is the artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, the oldest and largest gay men's chorus in the country (that's a lot of gays... singing gays), and he asked me to write a five-minute piece about Harvey Milk for the chorus. I had seen the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. I had seen the brilliant film Milk. (Full disclosure: My husband, David Bloch, was one of the marketing gurus on that film.) So I called Tim and said, "Thanks for asking, but I don't want to write a five-minute piece." Dramatic pause. "I want to write a 60-minute piece." As I saw it, it was my turn. Harvey was 48; I'm 48. Harvey was born Jewish; I was born Jewish. Harvey was gay; I'm happy. Most of all, I wanted to find out how I felt -- what I really felt, thought, needed, wanted, dreamed about, feared, loathed, craved -- when it came to being a gay man, a gay man in a world made much better because of people like Harvey Milk during that epoch when I was thinking that being gay was something one had to subdue or overcome or endure. Harvey's message was simple: Be yourself, accept others, demand honesty, love more. His famous "come out" speech remains a reminder to all of us, gay and straight, that living an authentic life is the only way to live. Anything other than authenticity is a lie.
Tim phoned a few days later to say that he'd discussed the idea with his team and that they were in favor of me writing a full-length work. It's titled "I Am Harvey Milk," and I have written the words and the music. Later this month it will premiere in San Francisco at Nourse Theatre with 300 singers, soloists and a 30-piece orchestra. And I will be playing Harvey Milk.
People have asked me if Harvey's message is still relevant or what his legacy means now. Why write an oratorio about Harvey Milk? What I have come to learn, with Harvey's words and life as my encouragement, is that I wanted to write about existence itself, about my right to exist, Harvey's right to exist, to excel, to be accepted, to express gratitude, to soar.
I am reminded of an old aphorism: "You alone must do it, but you mustn't do it alone." None of us can do it alone. Our parents, our teachers, our God, our society, our gay heroes -- we need them all in order to be fully alive, fully a part of the world, not apart from the world. I am Harvey Milk just as much as you are. We are all Harvey Milk as long as we love fairness and honesty and value balance and compassion.
Becoming a bar mitzvah means you accept the responsibility of your faith, that you join the community as a full member, with full rights and obligations. It's a reminder that you belong to a community. So creating "I Am Harvey Milk" is a gay bar mitzvah of sorts, a reminder that I belong to something big and beautiful and complicated and valuable. I hope "I Am Harvey Milk" reminds each audience member that they too belong to something bigger than themselves.
"I Am Harvey Milk," words and music by Andrew Lippa, will premiere as part of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus' "Harvey Milk 2013" concert on June 26, 27 and 28 at San Francisco's Nourse Theatre. For more information, please visit iamharveymilk.com.