Naval records indicate SF library's Milk discharge paperwork a fake

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday February 12, 2020
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U.S. Navy portrait of then Ensign Harvey Milk. Photo: Courtesy U.S. Navy
U.S. Navy portrait of then Ensign Harvey Milk. Photo: Courtesy U.S. Navy

A trove of naval records obtained by the Bay Area Reporter confirm that the late gay civil rights leader and San Francisco supervisor Harvey 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.

The 152 pages released by the Navy Personnel Command also reveal that Milk was forced to describe in precise detail the gay sex he engaged in with a number of men in the early 1950s while living in San Diego.

The records call into question the veracity of 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. Even close associates of Milk's, such as Cleve Jones, had been convinced that Milk had left the Navy on honorable conditions due to the existence of the document.

"This is fascinating," Jones told the B.A.R. this week after being shown Milk's military personnel records, "as to my knowledge this is the first time someone has been able to get this information from the Navy."

The files add "another layer of puzzlement to what is the document in the library's archive," noted Jones, who worked on the Oscar-winning 2008 biopic "Milk" about his friend and mentor's life.

In 1996, Elva Smith donated the Harvey Milk Archives-Scott Smith Collection to the library a year after the death of her son, who had been partners with Milk. The 28 cubic feet of materials included a photocopy of what appeared to be Milk's honorable discharge paperwork from the U.S. Navy.

Dated July 23, 1955, the document was signed by an R.C. Johnson, listed as a naval commanding officer. It seemed to discount the stories that Milk had told to reporters and on the campaign trail during his time in San Francisco in the 1970s that he had been dishonorably discharged from the Navy.

The veracity of those statements had long been questioned. Milk enlisted in the Navy in 1951 and attended Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. He won praise and was given a security clearance, according to his naval records, with one document from March 1, 1954 noting that "Lieutenant (junior grade) Milk performs his assigned duties in an excellent manner. He conducts himself well as an officer at all times."

At the time Milk was 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.

In his acclaimed biography about Milk, "The Mayor of Castro Street," the late gay journalist Randy Shilts detailed how Milk and his gay friends used his off-base apartment in San Diego as a party pad and a place where they could hook up with fellow sailors and other men they met.

He also wrote that Milk would later tell San Francisco voters "that despite all his accomplishments, the navy dishonorably discharged him after discovering his homosexuality." But Shilts signaled his dubiousness about that account by writing Milk "did not like to live dangerously" and "delicately walked the tightrope above the danger."

Shilts' book says nothing about Milk having to describe his sexual encounters with men to naval investigators. Rather, it noted that Milk lasted three years and 11 months in the Navy, "getting the usual month cut off his enlistment because of his model behavior."

In her 2018 biography "Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death," author and historian Lillian Faderman also wrote about Milk's exploits with other men while in the Navy and how, "decked out in his navy uniform, he looked mature and manly, his virility underscored by his brass belt buckle with its navy diver's insignia."

Her book states that Milk was given an honorable discharge "on February 7, 1955." She told the B.A.R. she had based her account on the document she had seen at the public library while doing her research for the book.

"I found the honorable discharge certificate and found no reason to doubt it," said Faderman.

An artist's rendering of the Navy ship being built that is named in honor of Harvey Milk.  

Astonished at ceremony
It was why she reacted with astonishment while attending the ceremony held in December at a San Diego shipbuilding yard to mark the start of construction on the naval supply ship the U.S.N.S. Harvey Milk. At the event Stuart Milk, Harvey's gay nephew who oversees the Harvey Milk Foundation, had noted that his uncle was forced to resign from the Navy in the 1950s after being caught in a San Diego park popular with gay men.

His remarks generated headlines across the globe, such as the Washington Post's "The Navy made Harvey Milk resign for being gay. Now they're building a ship named after him."

When Faderman asked Stuart Milk about his remarks, including mention of a 22-page document that he had confirming Milk was forced to resign from the Navy, she said he declined to share the document with her and told her the honorable discharge certificate in the library's archives was a fake.

"He would not share that document with me, and he has not shared it with the San Francisco Public Library where Harvey's honorable discharge certificate is housed — nor with anyone else that I know of," Faderman told the B.A.R.

Stuart Milk did not respond to the B.A.R.'s request for comment this week. Back in 2016, when the Navy announced it was naming the ship in honor of Milk, he had said in several news interviews that his uncle had been given an "other than honorable" discharge.

For example, the Daily Beast reported at the time that Stuart Milk had noted his uncle "was neither honorably discharged nor dishonorably discharged but 'other than honorably discharged,' meaning he was able to resign in a way that suggested there was an unofficial 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy in the military back then — or at least for some service members."

Stuart Milk was quoted as saying, "They gave him an opportunity to just leave, but it was really another reinforcer of the fact that he was 'less than,' but not quite a criminal."

The biography of Harvey Milk posted to the foundation's website merely says, "In 1955, he resigned at the rank of lieutenant junior grade after being officially questioned about his sexual orientation."

Library response
In an emailed response to Faderman in December, Tim Wilson, a librarian and archivist with the San Francisco Public Library, had written that the history center didn't have "the 22 page Navy investigation that Stuart mentioned. I am interested in seeing it, too."

This week, after being shown Milk's records released by the Navy, Wilson told the B.A.R. the library would like to get a certified copy from the Navy of his discharge papers. In the meantime, it will be including printed copies of the naval records in its collection and noting for researchers it now believes the honorable discharge "to be falsified."

"We will add this material to the Milk-Smith collection, add a sentence to the provenance note to indicate that this addition was made and the source of the material, and I'll need to update the finding aid regarding the discharge paperwork," wrote Wilson. "We will keep the honorable discharge paperwork with a note to indicate that it is believed to be falsified."

Faderman told the B.A.R. this week that she plans to update her book, which is already in paperback, to reflect the new information released by the Navy in its next edition. She also urged the library not to destroy the discharge paperwork in its collection, as she sees it as telling a part of Milk's story.

"What a story. It is much more poignant than I knew about. He forged a honorable discharge document which is in the SF Public Library," said Faderman. "That point is so touching and so sad. He probably had to show that when he looked for employment. Wow, it is heartbreaking really."

She said she wished Milk had spoken more about his being arrested for engaging in gay sex.

"He did say he was separated from the service but he didn't talk about the details. That would have been so fascinating," she said.

Threatened with court-martial
Although some of the documents released by the Navy are difficult to near impossible to read, it is clear that he was threatened with being court-martialed on a charge of "participation in a homosexual act" with another serviceman and underwent a psychiatric examination that found him "sane, competent and responsible for his acts."

Milk was also forced to sign an affidavit about his gay sexual encounters. They included his meeting a man at a gay bar in San Diego and bringing him to a hotel where the man gave him a blow job.

"By blow job I mean that he took my penis in his mouth and performed a sex act," states the document. It goes on to detail several more incidents of oral sex Milk admitted to having with other men he met on five other occasions. Milk was also required to tell navy investigators what he thought the names of his sex partners were, according to the document.

The naval records are a stark reminder of the harassment gay men faced during the 1950s, noted Jones, at the height of the McCarthy era when fears about both homosexuals and communists serving in the U.S government ran wild.

"Especially younger people learning the story of Harvey Milk might not know what was going on in the country at that time. Mad witch hunts were going on," said Jones.

Next week's Bay Area Reporter will report on how LGBT veterans given less than honorable discharges can apply to have those rescinded from their records.