The U.S. Navy has recognized the late LGBTQ political icon, historic trailblazer and Navy veteran Harvey Milk with a new ship named in his honor.
Deepa Shivaram of NPR reported that “the U.S. Navy has launched and christened a ship named for the slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk, who served in the Navy during the Korean War but was discharged after being questioned about his sexual orientation.”
According to Shivaram, “the 742-foot-long ship that launched from San Diego on Saturday, Nov. 6, is the second of six new vessels in the Navy’s fleet oiler program, which will help replenish fuel for other Navy ships that are already out at sea. The Navy plans to eventually have 20 ships in the program.”
LGBTQ advocates are calling the military’s move a symbolic and massive milestone, especially following the long battle the nation’s LGBTQ citizens have had to endure to serve openly within its ranks.
In a statement, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said the naming of the ship is intended to help show the errors the military made in the past and prove that the agency is attempting to move past them with a lasting, inclusive commitment to current and future LGBTQ service members. Previous estimates suggest that as many as 100,000 veterans were discharged from military service solely because of their sexual orientation.
“Leaders like Harvey Milk taught us that diversity of backgrounds and experiences help contribute to the strength and resolve of our nation,” Del Toro said. “There is no doubt that the future Sailors aboard this ship will be inspired by Milk’s life and legacy.”
Stuart Milk, the co-founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation and Milk’s nephew, attended the event and said Harvey would be touched by the honor. He also added that it was one of his uncle’s dreams “for service members to serve with authenticity and not be forced to hide who they were and who they love.”
Stuart Milk said that the military had previously approached him about reversing Harvey’s dishonorable discharge from the military. Stuart said he had decided against it, preferring to keep the discharge in place to remind future generations that not everyone has been treated with honor — and that LGBTQ men and women have had to work hard to achieve the rights they have today.
“We have to teach our history to prevent ourselves from going backward,” he said. “This navy ship sends an important message to the world.”
Harvey Milk was a member of the Navy between 1951 and 1955, which included a significant portion of the Korean War.
“In 1977, after his Navy career, Milk became the first openly gay elected official in California when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors,” Shivaram said. “He was assassinated just one year later by a former city supervisor.”
The USNS Harvey Milk is one of six new ships named after civil rights icons as part of a new military program promoting diversity and inclusion. Other ships in the fleet will be named after late civil rights leader and former Georgia Congressman John Lewis; former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren; lawyer and politician Robert F. Kennedy; prominent orator, abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone; and abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.