Earlier this week, the U.S. Navy officially commemorated the new USNS Harvey Milk, a 677-foot fleet oiler and first navy ship to be named after a member of the LGBTQ community.
It was the latest of many milestones for Milk, who was assassinated a year after he became the first openly gay person elected to political office in California, having won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.
Milk was honored in a ship naming ceremony Tuesday on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay by the likes of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who echoed the late LGBT rights advocate when he remarked that “a more diverse force is a stronger force.”
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, members of Milk’s family, and ship sponsor Paula Neira—a transgender woman who was discharged because of her sexual orientation, and has since become the first Navy veteran to have her gender corrected on her DD-214 (discharge papers)—were among those in attendance at Tuesday’s ceremony.
The occasion was a long time coming for gay rights activists in San Francisco and the Harvey Milk Foundation, which began campaigning for a ship to be named after Milk before President Obama repealed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2011, allowing gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to serve openly.
In 2012, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution urging Secretary Mabus to name a ship in honor of Milk, who served in the Navy from 1951 to 1955.
“It is important to note that the Navy is not only celebrating someone who was openly gay but also now celebrating someone whom they themselves once did anything but celebrate: a person who they forced to resign simply because of who he was,” Stuart Milk, Harvey’s nephew and leader of the Harvey Milk Foundation, told The Daily Beast.
“I think that sends an important message that these institutions and laws are infallible and that we have to continue to progress forward.”
Stuart, who was 17 when his uncle was assassinated, noted that Harvey 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.
“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,” Stuart said.
Milk was stationed in San Diego as a diving instructor for some time, then left in 1955 with a lieutenant junior ranking.
“There is a misconception that Harvey was anti-military, when in fact he came from an Eastern European Jewish family and was very impacted by the Holocaust and believed firmly in having a strong military,” Stuart said. “He was anti-imperialism and anti-militarism.”
Milk’s parents both served in the U.S. military during World War II. His mother, a “yeomanette,” campaigned for women to be able to join the Navy during World War I.
The USNS Harvey Milk is one of six, next-generation ships that are being named after for civil and human rights leaders, including Robert F. Kennedy and Sojourner Truth.
In May and June, Mabus was met with pushback from conservative lawmakers who tried to prevent the Navy from naming ships after people who weren’t presidents or hadn’t served in the military.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and House Armed Services Committee member, previously challenged Mabus’s naming a destroyer after former Sen. Carl Levin, the democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In a letter to Hunter, Mabus’s public affairs officer wrote that the secretary “is mindful of the established ship naming policy… While the ship naming conventions provide a guideline for names, there have been a number of deviations from those conventions throughout the history of the U.S. Navy.”
During Tuesday’s ceremony, Mabus noted that each class of ship in the Navy has a naming convention, or theme. “Submarines are mostly named for states, combat ships for cities, destroyers for naval heroes and members of congress and former secretaries of the Navy,” he said. During his seven years as Navy secretary, Mabus has named eight ships after medal-of-honor recipients.
“It’s important to remember and honor naval heroes—sailors and marines who have sacrificed so much for America,” he said. “But it’s also important to recognize and honor those who have fought in a different way and sacrificed… those who have fought for the ideals that we cherish as a nation: justice, equality, and freedom.”
Under his leadership, the Navy has now created a new naming convention (in January, Mabus named the first ship in this new class of command replenishment vessels after John Lewis, the Georgian politician and civil rights activist).
“My uncle always told me that it poisoned the soul to have to lie about or hide who you were,” Stuart said, recalling how his uncle gave him a book in 1972, Seven Arrows, about Native Americans when Stuart was 12 and not yet out of the closet.
“He told me that my authenticity and the fact that I felt different from everyone else was important, and he wrote in the front, ‘All of your differences are the medicine that the world needs, even when the world doesn’t recognize that.’ I think the USNS Harvey Milk can telegraph that message to the world.”
His uncle reinforced the importance of “talking about things that people might not like talking about because they’re too complex, whether it’s Kuwait or India, where the Supreme Court has gone backwards and re-criminalized being LGBT,” Stuart added.
“We’ve been told that the USNS Harvey Milk will not serve in one particular fleet, like the Pacific or Atlantic fleet, but that these ships will actually travel the world,” said Stuart. “It’s important to recognize that the ship named after Harvey will enter both civilian ports and military ports where it’s still illegal to be LGBT.
“We live in a global society. If any of us are not free, none of us are free,” Stuart said.
In the last year, the Harvey Milk Foundation has worked with local nongovernmental organizations around the world to raise awareness around LGBTQ rights, from Hungary to Lithuania.
With the news that a Navy ship would be named in Milk’s honor, Lithuania has become more receptive to the Foundation’s campaign to establish an LGBT center in the country.
“We’ve been working on the ground for half a decade trying to move the Baltic nations forward,” Stuart said. “The reason I think the ship is so important is because the military is very important to the Baltic nations, and the ship sends a message to a socially conservative government that maybe they should look at honoring Harvey as very famous Lithuanian-American.
“Militaries around the world tend to be very similar in terms of structures and commands. Most activist groups would say the military is an odd entrée into doing civil society and civil inclusion work, but we’ve seen it be effective for women—not everywhere, but in many countries.
“Military culture has allowed cultures that don’t otherwise accept women’s equality to realize, ‘Wait a second, women are capable of commanding.’ We’re hoping that they will come to that same realization with the LGBTQ community.”
Stuart said he saw his uncle “transition through many roles. He was a teacher before he was a politician, and I think the USNS Harvey Milk is a testament to the average, every day person who followed why my uncle took those bullets, whether it’s the kid on the playground who stands up for his buddy who is different, or the person in a corporate boardroom who hears a sexist joke or a homophobic joke or a xenophobic joke and stands up for them.”
The Foundation received an email from a man stationed in Kuwait, Stuart said, who expressed hope that—when the USNS Harvey Milk comes to port—he might finally be able to serve openly.
“I don’t think there could be anything more meaningful to my uncle than that.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Harvey Milk's parents fled Europe during World War II.