Sixty-six years after Harvey Milk was discharged from the Navy for being gay, the US Navy has named its newest ship after the slain LGBTQI civil rights icon.
The U.S.N.S Harvey Milk was launched from its shipyard in San Diego on Saturday. Former Navy officer Paula M. Neira, now the Clinical Program Director for the John Hopkins Center for Transgender Health, broke the traditional bottle of champagne across the ship’s bow, just before it slid into the waters of San Diego Bay.
Amongst the other dignitaries on hand to witness the launch of the 227-metre refuelling vessel were Carlos Del Toro, the Secretary of the Navy, and Stuart Milk, Harvey Milk’s nephew, and the co founder and president of the Harvey Milk Foundation.
Honour Marks New Era for LGBTQI Service People
Milk had enlisted in the US Navy in 1951 and worked as a diving instructor in San Diego. A lieutenant junior grade, Milk served in the Navy during the Korean War. He was given an “other than honourable” discharge and relieved from service on February 7, 1955, following two weeks of interrogations about his sex life.
An estimated 100,000 US military veterans have been given other than honourable (OTH) discharges due to their sexual orientation, 14,000 of whom received their discharges during the 17 years the “don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy was in effect.
”When the Harvey Milk sails, she will send a very strong message both domestically and around the globe to everybody that believes in freedom and justice and liberty, that there is a place for you in this family,” said Neira, who co-sponsored the vessel, along with Senator Dianne Feinstein, who served with Milk on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.
Let’s Teach His Story, Says Milk’s Nephew
Milk’s nephew Stuart had rejected the Navy’s offer to change his uncle’s discharge status to an honourable discharge, saying he did so “to keep the memory of how we did not honour everyone in this very honourable service.”
“We have to teach our history to prevent ourselves from going backwards and repeating it,” Stuart said at the ceremony.
“Uncle Harvey did not set out to have a ship, school or park named after him,” Milk said. “He did have a dream, however. Yes, Uncle Harvey was forced to resign because he was gay. Let’s teach his story, teach about our flaws so we don’t go backward.”
“Harvey actually dreamed of today. His dream gave him courage. Harvey left this world seeing all of us fulfill our potential and making his dream a reality,” said Stuart.
Navy Is A “Welcoming Community”
Today we christened the USNS Harvey Milk (T-AO 206)! This great ship honors #NavyDiver & #CivilRights activist Harvey Milk who was forced out of the service due to unfair policies. Because of him, today our #LGBTQ #Sailors & #Marines serve honorably as their genuine selves. pic.twitter.com/HvOgpmQAVL
— Office of the Secretary of the Navy (@SECNAV) November 6, 2021
Del Toro acknowledged that Harvey Milk was forced to “mask that very important part of his life,” during his time in the Navy, and called Milk an example “for all of our sailors and Marines to be bold… have strong courage of convictions, always do the right thing.”
“The Secretary of the Navy needed to be here today, not just to amend the wrongs of the past, but to give inspiration to all of our LGBTQ community leaders who served in the Navy, in uniform today and in the civilian workforce as well too, and to tell them that we’re committed to them in the future,” Del Toro told the invited guests.
“I think it sends a message to all of our LGBT community and to all Americans that the Department of the Navy is a very welcoming community for all Americans who want to serve our country in uniform and civilians in the department as well too,” Del Toro said.
Harvey Milk’s Legacy Lives On
Truly honored to join @SecNav and so many federal, state, and local leaders for the christening of the USNS Harvey Milk. Harvey was a beacon of hope not just for LGBTQ people, but all Americans. Now, this ship will serve as a symbol of hope for the world to see. #ForAllofUs pic.twitter.com/QmfSDOkPfp
— San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria (@MayorToddGloria) November 6, 2021
“Leaders like Harvey Milk taught us that diversity of backgrounds and experiences help contribute to the strength and resolve of our nation.There is no doubt that the future sailors aboard this ship will be inspired by Milk’s life and legacy,” Del Toro, said in a statement, prior to the ceremony.
“For far too long, sailors like Lt. Milk were forced into the shadows or, worse yet, forced out of our beloved Navy,” Del Toro said. “That injustice is part of our Navy history, but so is the perseverance of all who continue to serve in the face of injustice.”
Todd Gloria, the first out LGBTQ+ mayor of San Diego, was also present at the ceremony and tweeted, “Harvey was a beacon of hope not just for LGBTQ people, but all Americans. Now, this ship will serve as a symbol of hope for the world to see.”
“This is a day many of us could never have dreamed of happening,” Gloria said.
The U.S.N.S Harvey Milk, is the second of six John Lewis class refuelling vessels, each to be given the name of a US civil right leader, a move instituted in 2016 by Ray Mabus, then Secretary of the Navy. In addition to Milk, the others to be so honoured include Sojourner Truth, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Robert F. Kennedy, suffragist Lucy Stone and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.
Secretary Del Toro said, “Ship names are important because they express what we value as a Navy and as a nation and communicate those values around the globe in every port of call.”
The Mayor Of Castro Street
Harvey Milk, made history as the first out LGBTQ+ person to become an elected official in California.
Milk was elected to serve on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone inside San Francisco City Hall in 1978, by a disgruntled political opponent, Dan White.
Milk was 48 years old. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 by President Barack Obama.
Milk, in response to the death threats he received in his time in office, had said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”