Organizers insist that a national campaign to persuade the United States Navy to christen “the next appropriate ship” the USS Harvey Milk in honor of the slain civil rights leader and naval veteran, launched nearly two years ago, is still on course. But they confess that achieving their goal is far from a sure thing.
To date, the highest-level, officially acknowledged conversation about the prospect of the U.S. Navy naming a ship after Milk happened during the tenure of gay San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria’s term as interim mayor with Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.
“I remain optimistic that Harvey Milk will be appropriately honored and a Navy vessel will bear his name,” Gloria told the Blade. San Diego, where the USS Harvey Milk Navy Ship Campaign was launched, is the principal homeport to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet and its more than 50 ships.
The Office of the Secretary of the Navy did not respond to a request for comment.
Lt. Junior Grade Harvey Milk trained to become a master diver at what is now Naval Base San Diego. Gloria and one of the lead proponents of the USS Harvey Milk ship campaign, San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, say they are confident the campaign remains on track to win Navy support for the idea of honoring Milk with a vessel bearing his name.
However, more than nine months have passed since Gloria met with Secretary Mabus and two years since the ship-naming campaign began. The Navy has yet to affirm that it is considering naming a vessel for Milk.
“The State of California has designated May 22 annually as ‘Harvey Milk Day,’” wrote Gloria in a letter to Mabus around the same time of his in-person meeting with the Navy secretary in Washington. “Given the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, I believe that naming a vessel in honor of Harvey Milk will continue the strong message that as Americans we honor the service of all equally.”
Gloria’s letter to Mabus also noted that Milk was posthumously bestowed with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for a civilian by President Obama in 2009.
What class of Navy ship might one day be called the “Harvey Milk,” maybe an aircraft carrier or nuclear submarine? That’s not likely as those are historically named only after presidents. If the examples of Cesar Chavez and former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, both of whom have been so honored, offer guidance, then a ship named after Milk is likely to be a littoral or cargo vessel.
“We aren’t concerned with what type of ship it is,” Ramirez said. “That’s up to the Navy. What we care about is that a ship is named for this deserving Navy veteran and American hero.”
According to Ramirez, the decision about whether to name a vessel after the late Harvey Milk rests solely with the secretary of the Navy. If the campaign succeeds, it will be the first time a Naval vessel is named after an openly gay man.
Sean Sala, also a Navy veteran, is a Servicemembers United national leadership committee member and current national coordinator for the Military Freedom Coalition, an LGBT service members advocacy group. Like Milk before him, Sala was also stationed at Naval Base San Diego. He said it would be difficult to overestimate the value to the nation’s LGBT population to know that there is a naval vessel named in honor of Milk.
“Every time I pulled into a foreign port I had a local ask me ‘what’s your ship’s name?’” Sala said. “Our ships’ names then go into the mindset of the people whose countries we visit. Many of our ships are named after great battles, great military leaders; and now we have the Caesar Chavez. We are starting to name our ships after people who were civil rights leaders, so the USS Harvey Milk would send a message around the world that we, as a country, defend, protect and cherish the ideal that LGBT people should be equal under the law.”
Says Sala, a United States Navy ship emblazoned with the name “USS Harvey Milk” would be a powerful statement to friends and foes alike, that U.S. sailors are willing to lay down their lives for an American vision of equality that includes lesbians, gays, bi and transgender people in addition to heterosexuals. Nicole Murray Ramirez agreed.
“Growing up as a Latino, it was hard to find role models,” Ramirez said. “Basically, we had no role models other than the veterans of World War II, such as my dad.”
After more than seven years of work that included gathering statements of support from a diverse crowd of national leaders and elected officials from across the U.S., including some Republicans, last May the United States Postal Service unveiled the Harvey Milk Commemorative Stamp—its first specifically honoring an openly gay man.
“I think the secretary of the Navy will see how much this ship will mean to gay and lesbian and other minorities, the same way that naming a ship after Cesar Chavez meant so much to the Latino community,” Ramirez said.
Several former members of the armed forces, including retired U.S. Navy commander Zoe Dunning and retired Marine Corps staff sergeant Eric Alva have joined with prominent LGBT and civil rights leaders, including Stuart Milk, Harvey’s nephew, to work behind the scenes to speed up the effort to make the ship a reality. The campaign even has a congresswoman, San Diego Democrat Susan Davis, on its list of honorary co-chairs.
“This is going to happen,” Ramirez told the Blade. “It’s not a question of ‘if.’ It’s a question of ‘when.’”
Harvey Milk was elected to a seat on the San Francisco City and County Board of Supervisors in 1977. He was assassinated along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White in 1979.
Milk, who was famous for saying, “You gotta give ‘em hope,” is frequently credited with leading the defeat of California’s Briggs Initiative, which would have prevented LGBT people from teaching in public schools. His U.S. Navy deep-sea diver’s belt buckle, which Milk wore while serving on the USS Kittiwake during the Korean War, is among the items of clothing he wore on the day White fired the bullet that killed him.