Navy to Name Ship in Harvey Milk’s Honor

Harvey Milk during his service in the Navy. | HARVEY MILK FOUNDATION

Harvey Milk during his service in the Navy. | HARVEY MILK FOUNDATION

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | US Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has notified Congress of the Navy’s intention to name a Military Sealift Command fleet oiler the USNS Harvey Milk, in honor of the LGBT rights leader and San Francisco city supervisor who was assassinated in 1978.

In a July 28 story, USNI News reported that Mabus sent the notification to Congress on July 14, but that a Navy official told the publication no additional information would be released until the official naming announcement.

USNI News is an online publication of the United States Naval Institute, a nonprofit educational organization focused on discussion of defense and security issues.

Pioneering LGBT rights leader served on rescue submarine in Korean War

The ship is one of a class of Navy oilers named for John Lewis, the Georgia Democratic House member who has been a leading civil rights leader since the 1960s. Other civil rights leaders honored in this class of ships include Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, women rights advocate Lucy Stone, and abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth, USNI News reported.

Slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers and Latino farm workers organizer Cesar Chavez have also previously been honored by Mabus, the publication reported.

Milk, whose family included naval veterans, joined the Navy in 1951 during the Korean War, and he served on the rescue ship USS Kittiwake and later as a diving instructor at Naval Base San Diego. He left the Navy in 1955 at the rank of lieutenant, junior grade.

In a Facebook post, Stuart Milk, Harvey’s out gay nephew who has been advocating for the Navy to take this step since the military ended its Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy five years ago, wrote, “Joyful tears thinking of the meaning & symbolism at global ports of call for the USNS Harvey Milk.”

The younger Milk specifically cited the advocacy by San Diego Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez in moving the issue forward.

Milk, who grew up on Long Island and worked for a time on Wall Street, eventually moved to San Francisco, where he owned a famous neighborhood camera shop in the Castro and became an outspoken gay rights leader. After several failed runs for public office, he was elected to the Board of Supervisors in November 1977. In the statewide elections the following November, Milk was a leader in the successful effort to beat back a voter initiative that would have required the firing of public school teachers who were gay or supported LGBT rights.

Just weeks after that victory, Milk and his political ally Mayor George Moscone were gunned down at City Hall by former Supervisor Dan White, a conservative rival of Milk’s who days before had resigned his office in frustration but hoped to take back that decision. A year and a half later, White was acquitted of first-degree murder but convicted of voluntary manslaughter and given a sentence of less than eight years in prison, a verdict that inflamed the LGBT community in San Francisco and nationwide. Eighteen months after his release from prison, White took his own life.

In a written statement, Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association, an organization of LGBT military families, said, “Harvey Milk is an American hero and an icon for LGBT equality, and it's phenomenal that the US Navy is going to honor his legacy by naming a ship after him. Harvey Milk’s incredible leadership in the face of adversity continues to inspire all of us in our ongoing fight for full LGBT equality. By breaking down barriers and fighting for the dignity and worth of all Americans, he left behind an example for all of us in his service to our nation, both in and out of uniform.”