Navy Expected to Name Ship after Gay Rights Activist Harvey Milk

This file photo from April 1977 shows San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in the mayor's office during the signing of the city's gay rights bill in San Francisco. AP Photo/File
This file photo from April 1977 shows San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in the mayor's office during the signing of the city's gay rights bill in San Francisco. AP Photo/File

The U.S. Navy is expected to name a ship after Harvey Milk, the first time it has bestowed the honor on a gay leader and a gesture that underscores the military's transformative shift on LGBT people.

According to the U.S. Naval Institute News, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus signed a notification on July 14 that he intended to name a Military Sealift Command fleet oiler the USNS Harvey Milk. Milk's nephew, Stuart Milk, said Mabus told him that the ship would travel worldwide.

A Navy spokesman declined to comment because the decision has not been officially announced. It will likely be a couple of years before the ship, which would be built in San Diego by General Dynamics and as the second John Lewis-class oiler, will enter service.

Gay activists and leaders in San Francisco greeted the news as indicative of Milk's enduring legacy, but some expressed unease that Milk, an anti-Vietnam War activist and Navy veteran, would have his name so closely connected with the military.

Until 2011, it was illegal for anyone who was openly gay or lesbian to serve in the military. And it was only last month that the Pentagon announced it would end its ban on transgender people serving openly in the military.

Stuart Milk, who was 17 when Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1978 and later co-founded the Harvey Milk Foundation, hailed the decision. He said it came after a years-long letter writing campaign by his organization and others urging the military to name a ship after his uncle.

"We have just reached the point recently where LGBT people can serve openly in the military, and what better message can there be of that than this ship? It's a very fitting tribute to a man whose primary goal was for people to be authentic and not have to wear a mask," he said.

And, he added, the ship will be "another beacon of hope" as it travels to ports around the world where being gay is illegal.

San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, who is gay, called it "a huge step forward for the LGBT community." In 2012, Wiener authored a resolution urging the Navy to name a ship after Milk. It passed 9-2, with Supervisors Jane Kim and Christina Olague opposed.

"We are making real progress in an institution that has historically tended to be homophobic," Wiener said. "Naming a ship after our great LGBT leader speaks volumes about where this country is and where this president is," he said.

Zoe Dunning, a former member of the Democratic County Central Committee, a lesbian and retired Navy commander, said naming a ship after Milk would ensure that hundreds of enlisted officers learned about his work and legacy.

"Everyone who serves on that ship over the ship's life time will know who Harvey Milk is and his contribution to history," she said.

The ship is expected to have a crew of roughly 95 people, most of them civilians.

Cleve Jones, who interned for Milk when he was a supervisor, said he had mixed feelings about the decision.

"I have no idea what Harvey would think of this. He has been dead a long time," said Jones, who conceived of the Names Project's AIDS Memorial Quilt. "I can tell you I have mixed feelings. It is obviously an indication that gay people are more accepted than they were when he lived. And I think he would be glad of that. But he did not like war."

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a gay rights activist in San Francisco and director of counseling programs at the Housing Rights Committee, a tenants organization, echoed that sentiment.

"It's a really tough one," he said. "I certainly understand where people would feel pride in this. But I just feel uneasy. It makes me very uncomfortable that Harvey's name is on anything connected to the military."

Milk served aboard the USS Kittiwake, a submarine rescue ship, during the Korean War. He attained the rank of lieutenant, junior grade, and was discharged in 1955.

Milk was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States. Originally from Woodmere, N.Y., Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972 and opened a camera store on Castro Street in 1973. He was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977.

At age 48, Milk was assassinated on Nov. 28, 1978, by Dan White, a former colleague on the Board of Supervisors. Mayor George Moscone was also killed in the attack. White had resigned from his position as supervisor, but then decided he wanted it back. Moscone refused, partially at the urging of Milk and others, prompting White to sneak into City Hall and kill them.

White's legal team argued that he suffered from diminished mental capacity as a result of depression and therefore could not have premeditated the killings. His defense became famous as the "Twinkie Defense" because of his consumption of junk food.

The jury found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter, the lightest possible conviction. Anger over White's seven-year sentence led to a night of rioting dubbed the White Night riots.



This article was written by Emily Green from San Francisco Chronicle and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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