Harvey Milk's name to emblazon new US Navy ship in 'salute from America'

The new ship honors an iconic activist, a Navy diver, and the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
The Harvey Milk Forever Stamp is unveiled in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in 2014. A Military Sealift Command ship will soon bear his name.

A Military Sealift Command ship soon will bear the name of Harvey Milk, a former Navy diver and the first openly gay politician to be elected to office in California. Mr. Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, at a time when the gay community was facing widespread hostility and discrimination.

The Navy has not confirmed the news yet, but according to the U.S. Naval Institute (USNI), Navy Secretary Ray Mabus sent a letter to Capitol Hill on July 14 notifying lawmakers that he intended to name a fleet oiler the USNS Harvey Milk after the gay rights activist.

The move comes barely a month after the Pentagon ended its ban on openly transgender people serving in the military. Until 2011, it was also illegal for openly gay or lesbian people to serve.

“I’m truly overwhelmed with emotion at the news,” San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, a gay- and Latino-rights activist who launched the national naming campaign with the Harvey Milk Foundation and other organizations in 2012, told the LGBT Weekly in San Diego.

“Coming from a military family – a father served in the Army and a gay brother who served in the Navy – to me this will be a salute from America acknowledging the service and history of our LGBT service people since the Revolutionary War,” she said.

The Harvey Milk ship will be the second in a series of new vessels to be built in San Diego starting in 2018. The first was named USNS John Lewis in honor of civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia, according to USNI News. Other new ships will be named after former US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, whose court ruled to desegregate US schools; former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy; women’s rights activist Lucy Stone; and abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.

It will be years before the Harvey Milk ship will enter into service, but the symbolism of the naming is already being heralded.

“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?” Stuart Milk, a nephew who co-founded the Harvey Milk Foundation after Milk was assassinated in 1978, told the SF Gate.

“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,” said Mr. Milk, who was 17 when Harvey Milk was killed, less than a year after being elected to office.

During the Korean War, Milk served aboard the USS Kittiwake, a submarine rescue ship. He then was a diving instructor at the Naval Station in San Diego, attaining the rank of lieutenant, junior grade, before being honorably discharged in 1955.

He was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country. Milk, the subject of a 2008 biopic, moved to San Francisco in 1972 from Woodmere, N.Y., and opened a camera store on the iconic Castro Street in 1973 before entering politics and activism. 

Milk was assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978, by Dan White, a disgruntled former colleague on the Board of Supervisors. He was 48. San Francisco Mayor George Moscone was also killed in the attack.

[Editor's note: This report has been updated to correct Stuart Milk's relationship to Harvey Milk and to reflect that Milk served during the Korean War.]

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