Political Notebook: Milk ship voyage marks naval sea return for trans sponsor

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday April 3, 2024
Share this Post:
Paula Neira is a sponsor of the USNS Harvey Milk and was in San Francisco last week for the ship's arrival ceremony. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko
Paula Neira is a sponsor of the USNS Harvey Milk and was in San Francisco last week for the ship's arrival ceremony. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko

During her time in the Navy Paula Neira routinely got seasick when she boarded a vessel. It would take her at least 24 hours to find her sea legs.

Yet, cruising aboard the USNS Harvey Milk on its maiden voyage to San Francisco last week, Neira felt fine during the trip up California's coast. She boarded the fleet replenishment oiler March 25 in San Diego and sailed with it through the Golden Gate three days later.

"I feel like I am home. I am feeling back where I belong," Neira, 61, told the Bay Area Reporter last Friday, March 29, after witnessing the ceremony hailing the ship's arrival in the city its namesake long called home.

It had been 33 years since Neira was last aboard a naval ship, as she was forced out of the Navy when she came out as transgender. During Operation Desert Storm in the Middle East, she was a Navy lieutenant stationed aboard the USS Merrill and part of the Mine Countermeasures Task Group.

"I never had better accommodations and food on a Navy ship in my career," said Neira when asked about her experience aboard the Milk ship.

At the ship's christening ceremony held November 6, 2021 at the San Diego shipyard where the Milk vessel was built, Neira was given the naval tradition of breaking a bottle of sparkling wine across the bow of the T-AO 206 class oiler. Being invited back to join the 79-person crew for the journey to San Francisco before it set sail for its homeport in Norfolk, Virginia, Neira told the B.A.R. she felt "the whole range of emotions" about the experience.

"It is humbling to get a chance to get underway with the crew and see their dedication to the mission," said Neira. "It is great to see the pride the civil mariners take in this job. Our warships can't do their job without ships like the Harvey Milk."

The Milk oiler is to be deployed overseas sometime in 2025. Its docking at Pier 30/32 at the Port of San Francisco drew protesters of Israel's war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, some of whom were able to break through the security barricade and chain themselves to the ship's gangway after the arrival ceremony had already concluded.

Due to the inclement weather, the ceremony was held aboard the ship inside one of its enclosed areas where a plaque hangs that denotes General Dynamics NASSCO built the USNS Harvey Milk for the Navy's Military Sealift Command. San Francisco Mayor London Breed was among the local leaders who welcomed it to town.

"It is so wonderful the Harvey Milk ship can spend a few days in our beautiful city before it ships off to duty," remarked Breed.

With ships traditionally referred to using female pronouns, Breed quipped about the vessel being named after Milk, the first gay person to win elective office in California with his 1977 victory in the race for a San Francisco supervisor seat. He would be killed by an assassin's bullet 11 months into his first term.

"It is so cool she is named for a boy. That is so San Francisco," said Breed.

Along with Neira the late U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who died last fall, was also named a sponsor of the ship. Adorning one of its walls is a letter from Feinstein, who served with Milk on the Board of Supervisors and fought for funds to build the naval vessel.

"USNS Harvey Milk will accomplish the critical mission of resupplying combat ships at sea, ensuring our warfighters have the provisions necessary to safeguard our nation," wrote Feinstein on the occasion of its christening. "As you do so, you will carry a rich legacy of civic leadership with the name of my former colleague, Harvey Milk ... best remembered for his selfless work building coalitions to bring about societal progress that improved the lives of many."

As sponsors, Feinstein and Neira were able to name as matrons of the Milk ship Anne Kronenberg, a campaign manager and City Hall aide to Milk, and Laila Ireland, a trans Army veteran whose husband, Logan, is also trans and served in the U.S. Air Force. Kronenberg attended the arrival ceremony sporting a cap festooned with the name and image of the Milk vessel.

"Harvey is doing a jig up there right now," said Kronenberg.

Part of Neira's duty as a ship sponsor is to make sure the crew feels appreciated and supported. Speaking to the B.A.R., she noted that the civil mariners and their families make sacrifices for the crew to do their job, as they spend four-month intervals away from home working on the Milk oiler. At Christmas, for instance, Neira sent each member of the crew a card with yuletide greetings.

"I am there to be a resource and provide support, and help with the morale of the ship," explained Neira, whose father served in the Army and was stationed in the Pacific during World War II.

It has been personally "very rewarding," said Neira, since she was forced to sacrifice her naval career when she transitioned in 1991.

"My career ended when I took on my new gender identity," she noted. "I intended to make the Navy a career."

Former President Barack Obama had lifted the ban on transgender people serving openly in the military in 2016. The Trump administration later re-imposed the ban, which was again lifted in 2021 by military leaders at the direction of President Joe Biden.

"These kids all get to fulfill their childhood dream of serving," noted Neira as she choked up a bit. "The Navy today is remarkably different than the Navy I joined."

No one should be drummed out of the military because their gender is different from that assigned to them at birth, argued Neira.

"When I accepted who I am and needed to be me, I was put in a position where I had to make the hardest decision I had to make. Nobody should be put in the position of choosing between themselves and choosing the mission," Neira said of trans servicemembers.

Her being forced out of the Navy put Neira on a different career projection. She enrolled in nursing school then law school and worked on ending the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that kept servicemembers in the closet and ruined the careers of at least 13,000 LGBTQ military personnel.

Neira went on to work for the Johns Hopkins Center for Transgender Health. She is currently the program director of LGBTQ+ equity and education at John Hopkins Medicine's Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Health Equity.

She grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey and was in high school when Milk was killed on the morning of November 27, 1978 along with then-mayor George Moscone by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White. She recalls hearing about their murders at the time but didn't know much back then about Milk's life story.

"Later in life I learned more about Harvey Milk," said Neira.

Like Neira, Milk was a lieutenant (junior grade) in the Navy, having enlisted in 1951. By 1954 he was stationed at what was then called the Naval Air Missile Test Center in Ventura County in Southern California. Milk, a naval diving instructor, was on active duty during the Korean War aboard submarine rescue ship USS Kittiwake (ASR-13).

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 several biographers of Milk had used to claim that he was honorably discharged from the Navy.

At last week's ceremony Stuart Milk, Milk's gay nephew who now runs a foundation the family set up to honor their famous relative's legacy, retold the story of how Obama had called him when DADT was lifted to ask if he wanted to have Milk's discharge be upgraded to an honorable one. Opposed to doing so, as the family didn't want to forget why Milk's naval career had ended, Stuart Milk said the phone went dead when he told Obama "no."

The trajectory from Milk being drummed out of the military to decades later being the first LGBTQ leader honored with a naval ship naming is a reminder that the fight for progress forever moves forward, said Neira.

"A more perfect union is never achieved. Like Polaris, the North Star, it is your guide you keep working toward," said Neira, who flew home to the East Coast Saturday as the Milk ship set sail for the Panama Canal. "It is what the preamble to the Constitution is about and something Harvey Milk obviously understood."

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 an LGBTQ data expert joining a 2030 census advisory body.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko.

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

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife. Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!