The U.S. Navy launched a new ship on Saturday named for the LGBTQ+ rights leader and politician Harvey Milk.
Milk served four years in the Navy before he was forced out due to his sexuality. He was one of the first out candidates to serve in public office when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Milk was assassinated the following year by a former colleague while at City Hall.
Former Navy officer Paula Neira, clinical program director for the John Hopkins Center for Transgender Health, smashed a bottle of champagne on the USNS Harvey Milk's bow before it traveled down the shipyard ways.
During the launch ceremony, Neira said, “When the Harvey Milk sails, she will send a very strong message both domestically and around the globe to everybody that believes in freedom and justice and liberty, that there is a place for you in this family.”
A significant number of remarks at the ceremony focused on the evolution of inclusion in the U.S. military.
“The secretary of the Navy needed to be here today not just to amend the wrongs of the past but to give inspiration to all of our LGBTQ community leaders who served in the Navy, in uniform today and in the civilian workforce as well too and to tell them that we're committed to them in the future,” Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said during the launch’s ceremony.
“For far too long, sailors like Lt. Milk were forced into the shadows or, worse yet, forced out of our beloved Navy,” Del Toro said. “That injustice is part of our Navy history, but so is the perseverance of all who continue to serve in the face of injustice.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, was unable to attend the event but sent a letter to be read at the ceremony. She knew Milk and was at City Hall when Milk was shot. In the letter, she wrote that the USNS Harvey Milk, “will carry a rich legacy of civic leadership.”
Milk’s name was selected in 2016 by then-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus who decided that six new oilers that were scheduled to be made should be named after U.S. human rights leaders, according to the Associated Press.
In addition to Milk, Sojourner Truth, Earl Warren, Robert F. Kennedy, and Lucy Stone will be honored. The late Rep. John Lewis of Georgia was honored with the first ship in the order over the summer. The oilers are being built by General Dynamics NASSCO as part of a $3.2 billion contract with the Navy.
At the ceremony, Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk thanked Mabus for giving his family detailed information about Milk’s discharge from the Navy.
“He has a less-than-honorable discharge. He was forced to resign because he was gay,” Stuart Milk, co-founder and president of the Harvey Milk Foundation, said. Though there is a way to reverse discharges such as Milk’s, Stuart Milk said it’s important to keep Milk’s discharge as it is to remember how those who did honorable service were not always treated honorably.
“We have to teach our history to prevent ourselves from going backwards and repeating it,” he said.