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Would Harvey Milk Object to His Name on a Warship?

Harvey Milk

The U.S. Navy will name a ship after Harvey Milk — but not everyone is pleased.

The outcries over a fleet oiler bearing the name of the late gay rights activist do not come from right-wing organizations. Rather, LGBT activists and their allies are questioning whether Milk, an advocate for hope and peace, would be outraged that his name will be branded on a machine of war.

"It's a warship," Christina Olaque, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012 during an earlier push to name a vessel after Milk. She voted against the move. "I'm not convinced that reflects Harvey Milk values."

Milk, one of the first out officials elected to office in a major city, was a veteran. As a young man he served in the Navy for four years, during which time he fought in the Korean War.

However, Milk later adopted an antiwar stance. As noted in Randy Shilts's The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, Milk marched against the Vietnam War. In April 1970 he was even fired from his position as a financial analyst after burning his Bank of America card in protest of the invasion of Cambodia.

“The Milk who served in the Navy and the Milk who, less than two decades later, defied the taboos of his day to have sex with men, grow his hair, smoke pot and oppose the war in Vietnam, were completely different individuals,” said queer activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca.

Milk was assassinated in 1978, a victim of gun violence on the part of former Supervisor Dan White. Some of his most famous quotations foreshadow his murder and are antiviolence in stance.

“The fact is that more people have been slaughtered in the name of religion than for any other single reason. That, that my friends, is true perversion,” Milk said.

“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet shatter every closet door,” he famously declared.

As the end of the ban on service by transgender people and the lifting of “don’t ask, don’t tell” had demonstrated, the U.S. military has come a long way in its acceptance of LGBT people. For many, Milk’s ship is a potent symbol of this evolution.

The honor is also further testament to the leader’s message of hope, which has been recognized by President Obama, who honored Milk with a posthumous Medal of Freedom; by the U.S. Postal Service, which imprinted Milk’s face on a stamp; and by vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine, who included Milk’s name in a list of American civil rights heroes.

But for others, the ship is a stain on the activist’s legacy.

"Why not name a bomber after Gandhi?" Avicolli Mecca wrote. "The purpose of the military is to kill people, no matter how we look at it. I know Harvey opposed the Vietnam War, and if he were alive, he would be against the wars we are in now. I think it is inappropriate."

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