Navy christens oiler named after gay icon Milk

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Saturday November 6, 2021
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The Navy Saturday, November 6, christened its new replenishment oiler named after gay icon Harvey Milk. Photo: Screengrab
The Navy Saturday, November 6, christened its new replenishment oiler named after gay icon Harvey Milk. Photo: Screengrab

The first American military ship named after an LGBTQ icon is now sailing international waters and further honoring the legacy of the late gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk.

At a November 6 ceremony in San Diego, Navy Veteran and Clinical Program Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Transgender Health Paula Neira christened the Navy's USNS Harvey Milk (T-AO 206) by breaking a bottle of sparkling wine across the bow in a time-honored naval tradition. The Navy's Military Sealift Command will operate it.

"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," noted Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, who attended and spoke at the ceremony.

Neira said the ceremony was "about family and about duty. Harvey Milk represents both. This message about family is about us giving hope to the us-es, not just the LGBTQ community, all of the people who have not been welcomed to military service in our history and our country."

Del Toro said he needed to be there "to amend the wrongs of the past" when LGBTQ people were drummed out of the military and barred from serving openly and proudly.

Today, he said, "We need to give inspiration to all our LGBTQ military leaders who serve in the Navy today and civilian force and tell them we are committed to them and their future."

As for Milk, Del Toro said he set an example "for all Americans as the life he lived in the Navy and the life he lived afterwards was truly exemplary." He added that Milk is the sort of "Naval leaders we need."

Officials prepare to christen USNS Harvey Milk (T-AO 206) November 6 in San Diego. Photo: Screengrab  

Rear Admiral Michael Wettlaufer, commander of Military Sealift Command, called it "a remarkable day" and noted the Milk oiler will ensure the freedom of access to international seas and the rules based international order.

"Having Harvey Milk as namesake for this ship as she adds to our nation's strategic advantage in agile logistics is absolutely awesome," said Wettlaufer. "With enhanced capabilities for cargo storage and delivery of fuel, Harvey Milk will support our Navy in the away game as we keep our country safe far from home and protect the sea lines of communication."

In 1977, Milk became the first out LGBTQ person to win elected office in both San Francisco and California. Yet he was gunned down 11 months into his first term on the morning of November 27, 1978 inside City Hall along with then-mayor George Moscone by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White.

Since then Milk has become a beloved gay luminary around the globe. The Navy had announced in 2016 that one of its fleet replenishment oilers would be named in his honor.

An LGBTQ San Diego advisory group had launched a campaign in 2012 to have a naval ship named for Milk, a Navy veteran who was on active duty during the Korean War. The Imperial Court System, the philanthropic drag organization that began in San Francisco in 1965, led a letter writing campaign to convince the secretary of the navy to approve a Milk vessel.

Gay San Diego city and county commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, who as the Queen Mother I of the Americas and Nicole the Great is the titular head of the court, first thought of the proposal after the repeal of the military's homophobic "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which marked its 10th anniversary on September 20. With the navy secretary the lone person who has final say over naval ship names, Murray Ramirez had the court's 70 chapters across North America send letters from its members and local officials in support of a Milk ship.

A naming ceremony for the Milk oiler was held on Treasure Island in San Francisco in August 2016 with Ray Mabus, at the time secretary of the Navy, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), then the House minority leader. The vessel's first cut ceremony took place December 13, 2019 at the San Diego shipyard.

It marked the start of construction, with the cutting of the first piece of steel being used. This past May Murray Ramirez, Milk's gay nephew Stuart Milk, gay former San Francisco supervisor Bevan Dufty, who served in what had been Milk's board seat, and veteran Morgan Hurley were among a select group that got a sneak peak of the ship, as the B.A.R. first reported.

In September the B.A.R.'s Political Notebook column broke the news that the Milk ship would launch this month. It did so from the General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company's shipyard in San Diego where it has been under construction. Various LGBTQ dignitaries and elected leaders from across California attended the morning ceremony, as did Mabus.

Among them were gay San Diego leaders Mayor Todd Gloria and City Council Pro Tem Stephen Whitburn; lesbians former state lawmaker Christine Kehoe and retired Navy Reserve Commander Zoe Dunning; Milk campaign manager and confidant Anne Kronenberg; and San Diego Supervisor Nathan Fletcher with his son.

Stuart Milk said his uncle was proud to carry on their family's tradition of serving in the Navy. While the 2011 end to the homophobic military policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" that prevented LGBTQ people from serving openly was about "tolerance," he said the ship naming was about honoring not only his uncle but all LGBTQ veterans and military service members.

"Today, we are celebrating something much bigger than tolerance," he said, it means the "Navy not only recognizes but honors those... so this Navy ship sends an important message to the world."

Milk enlisted in the Navy in 1951 and attended Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. By 1954 he was a lieutenant (junior grade) stationed at what was then called the Naval Air Missile Test Center in Ventura County in Southern California. He was serving as a diving instructor.

As the B.A.R. reported in February 2020, Milk was given an "other than honorable" discharge from the U.S. Navy and forced to resign on February 7, 1955 rather than face a court-martial because of his homosexuality, according to a trove of naval records obtained by the paper. It contradicted an archival document housed in the San Francisco Public Library's San Francisco History Center that authors of several recent biographies of Milk had used to claim that Milk was honorably discharged from the Navy.

The Milk replenishment oiler is one of four that will posthumously honor civil rights leaders, with the first congressman John Lewis and the others for U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy and U.S. Supreme Court chief justice and California governor Earl Warren. The USNS John Lewis, T-AO-205, was christened July 17.

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