Political Notebook: Launch date set for Milk naval ship

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 15, 2021
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Bevan Dufty, left, joined veteran Morgan Hurley, Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, and Stuart Milk in May for a look at the USNS Harvey Milk in San Diego. Photo: Courtesy International Imperial Court
Bevan Dufty, left, joined veteran Morgan Hurley, Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, and Stuart Milk in May for a look at the USNS Harvey Milk in San Diego. Photo: Courtesy International Imperial Court

With the Biden administration once again voicing support for LGBTQ rights on the global stage, the U.S. government will soon have a floating soapbox to project its pro-equality stance in ports around the world. The first American military ship named after an LGBTQ icon is set to take its maiden voyage later this year.

The Navy's USNS Harvey Milk, honoring the late gay San Francisco supervisor gunned down 43 years ago this fall, will launch Saturday, November 6, the Bay Area Reporter has learned. It will do 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 are expected to attend the ceremony, slated to begin at 9 a.m. that morning.

The Navy had announced in 2016 that a fleet replenishment oiler, T-AO 206, would be named in honor of Milk, the first gay person elected to public office in San Francisco and California with his 1977 victory of a seat on the city's Board of Supervisors. Milk would only serve 11 months in office, as he was assassinated along with then-mayor George Moscone the morning of November 27, 1978 by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White.

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 will mark its 10th anniversary Monday, 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.

"First the stamp, now the ship. Though I came up with the idea, it definitely takes a village," said Murray Ramirez, referring to the U.S. postal stamp in honor of Milk released in 2014.

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.

Murray Ramirez had hoped to work with the office of gay San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, and naval and NASSCO officials on a grand public ceremony to launch the USNS Harvey Milk. But the COVID-19 pandemic has upended those plans, and the event is expected to be a smaller affair.

"I am excited but also devastated it will not be what it could have been," Murray Ramirez told the B.A.R. in a phone interview Tuesday.

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.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on LGBTQ Californians' efforts to defeat the attempt to recall Governor Gavin Newsom.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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