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The U.S. Navy Has Christened a Ship Named After Slain Gay Rights Leader Harvey Milk

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A naval ship can be seen in the center of the frame, with red white and blue banners, streamers and balloons festooned across its aft. It's departing a pier.
USNS Harvey Milk departs the General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard after a ceremonial address in San Diego on Nov. 6, 2021.  (Ariana Drehsler/AFP via Getty Images)

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.

The 742-foot-long ship that launched from San Diego on Saturday 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.

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Naming the ship after an icon of the LGBTQ+ rights movement represents a symbolic milestone for the military following a long history in which queer service members were unable to serve openly. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said it helps right the wrongs of the past and shows a commitment to current and future LGBTQ+ service members. It's estimated that 100,000 veterans have been discharged from military service 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. There is no doubt that the future sailors aboard this ship will be inspired by Milk's life and legacy," Del Toro said.

Stuart Milk, Milk's nephew and the co-founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation, spoke at the event and said one of his uncle's dreams was "for service members to serve with authenticity and not be forced to hide who they were and who they love."

Three men stand together outside at an event with white chairs in the background. From left to right, a man in a bow tie and suit, another man in a navy hat and glasses holding a photo of Harvey Milk in naval uniform, and right, a smiling man in a suit with a goatee.
From left, David Campos, vice chair of the California Democratic Party; Nicole Murray-Ramirez, an LGBTQ+ activist, holding a photo of Harvey Milk; and Bevan Dufty, director of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District pose for a photo before the launching of the USNS Harvey Milk in San Diego on Nov. 6, 2021. (Ariana Drehsler/AFP via Getty Images)

Harvey Milk served in the Navy from 1951 to 1955, including during the Korean War. His nephew said the Navy provided the Milk family with the documents outlining his discharge and it was "less than honorable."

Milk says the Navy approached him about reversing his uncle's dishonorable discharge posthumously, but that he decided against it as a reminder that not everyone was treated with honor.

"We have to teach our history to prevent ourselves from going backwards," Stuart Milk said Saturday. "This navy ship sends an important message to the world."

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. But he was assassinated just one year later by a former city supervisor.

David Campos, who also served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and who is now a candidate for the state Assembly, told KQED the naming is "historic."

"The navy kicked Harvey Milk out with a dishonorable discharge for being gay, and it now is naming a ship after him. It shows how far we in the LGBTQ community have come," Campos said. "This ship will be an ambassador for LGBTQ inclusion and dignity as it travels the world."

Another politician, Bevan Dufty, an out gay man who serves on the Bay Area Rapid Transit board of directors, said the ship's christening was a testament to Milk's legacy.

"What was monumental about the christening is how many straight white men, many of whom in the military, stood up and spoke eloquently and powerfully about who Harvey was, the fight he gave his life for, and the importance of authenticity and coming out, and being inclusive," Dufty said. "You have to shake your head a little bit and go wow, this is amazing. It's one thing to stand at the Board of Supervisors and extoll the virtues of Harvey."

But, Dufty said, "to have a naval ship named in his honor is huge. It's not quite as big as the ship, but it's huge."

The two sponsors of the ship were Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Paula Neira, a Navy veteran and the clinical program director at the Center for Transgender Health at Johns Hopkins University.

Neira christened the ship by breaking a bottle of champagne on the hull, which is a Navy tradition.

All six new ships are part of a program named after the late civil rights leader and former Georgia Rep. John Lewis. The five other ships in the fleet are also named for leaders who championed civil rights: former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, Robert F. Kennedy, Lucy Stone, Sojourner Truth and Lewis.

Dufty, who attended the christening ceremony, said Milk was a deeply humorous man who would've appreciated the occasion for a particular reason: Naval ships are often referred to as "she" and "her," so when the event's military speakers kept referring to the vessel named for Milk as "Milk, she" and "Milk, her," Dufty said, "I felt like I was in a gay bar and it was only nine in the morning."

KQED's Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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