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.
Naming the ship after an icon of the LGBTQ rights movement represents a symbolic milestone for the military following a long history in which gay 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.”
Harvey Milk served in the Navy from 1951-1955, 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.
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 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 Congressman 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.