The proposal to name a U.S. Navy vessel after Harvey Milk is drawing mixed reactions in San Francisco, where the slain gay rights leader served as a city supervisor.
Some city leaders have endorsed the idea, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, who holds the board seat considered to be Milk’s.
But others contend it is an ill-conceived honor for the gay rights icon, including Milk photographer and close friend Dan Nicoletta. Queer economic justice activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca also panned the proposal as “inappropriate and insensitive” in an emailed statement to the Bay Area Reporter.
LGBT leaders in San Diego announced their campaign to convince the Navy to name one of its vessels after Milk last week. It is one of several proposals being pushed by the city’s GLBT Historic Task Force, which expects San Diego’s City Council to approve the renaming of a street after Milk at its May 8 meeting.
The task force is asking people to either send letters of support directly to Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy, or sign an online petition posted on change.org.
Milk served in the U.S. Navy and was on active duty during the Korean War. He trained as a deep-sea diver, and advanced to the rank of chief petty officer on the U.S.S. Kittiwake, according to a bio posted by the San Diego GLBT Historic Task Force.
Commissioned an ensign in late 1953, Milk was transferred to Naval Station at San Diego to serve as a diving instructor. In 1955, he was discharged from the Navy at the rank of lieutenant, junior grade, states the bio.
“Milk was proud of his military service, and wore a brass belt buckle bearing his Navy diver’s insignia until the day he died,” states the bio.
In the early 1970s Milk moved to San Francisco’s Castro district where he opened a camera shop and penned a political column for the B.A.R. After several failed attempts, Milk became the city’s – and state’s – first gay person to win elective office in 1977.
Tragically, a year later former disgruntled Supervisor Dan White assassinated Milk and then-Mayor George Moscone inside City Hall. Milk’s death turned him into an international LGBT icon.
He has been honored in numerous ways over the years. Parks and schools are named after him, and President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
Longtime LGBT activist and gay newspaper columnist Nicole Murray Ramirez, who befriended Milk, chairs the San Diego task force and has been pushing to honor Milk in various ways. He is working with the Harvey Milk Foundation, on whose board he serves, to gain national support for the Milk navy vessel idea.
“We in San Diego are very proud that Harvey Milk was stationed in our city and fell in love with California here,” Murray Ramirez told the San Diego LGBT Weekly, which carries his column and broke the news about the Milk vessel campaign on April 24.
In a statement Milk’s gay nephew, Stuart Milk, who is a spokesman for the Milk family and heads the foundation, called the proposal “inspiring.”
“As an American hero who proudly wore the uniform of a Naval officer, the naming of a major vessel after Harvey will add that most American value of equality and democracy to the proud message of inclusion for which military service now exemplifies,” stated Stuart Milk. “This action by the U.S. secretary of the Navy will further send a green light to all the brave men and women who serve our nation that honesty, acceptance and authenticity are held up among the highest ideals of our military.”
Congressman Bob Filner (D-San Diego), who is running to be San Diego’s next mayor, endorsed the proposal in letters he sent April 20 to both Mabus and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
“This action would be a fitting tribute to Mr. Milk’s support for equality, an ideal exemplified in the military’s recent repeal of its former ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy,” wrote Filner, referring to the restriction banning gay and lesbian service members from being out of the closet that Congress rescinded in 2010.
In response to a question this week from the B.A.R., Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said that “Leader Pelosi supports these efforts” to name a Navy ship after Milk.
At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Wiener introduced a resolution in support of the proposal.
“Harvey Milk was a visionary in our community and redefined what it means to be LGBT in public life. Given Supervisor Milk’s extraordinary public service and military service to our country, I can think of no more fitting tribute than to name a naval vessel after him,” stated Wiener.
Retired Navy Commander Zoe Dunning, an out lesbian and a leader in the effort to repeal DADT, has also endorsed the idea.
“Harvey Milk was proud of his Navy service. Similar to the USS Cesar Chavez, there should be a USS Harvey Milk to honor Milk’s leadership in the LGBT civil rights movement,” stated Dunning, referring to the Latino leader who organized California’s farmworkers.
At its meeting Monday, May 7 San Francisco’s Veterans Affairs Commission is expected to back the Milk ship idea. The commission’s gay chair, John Caldera, placed the item on the agenda.
“Absolutely, I support this 100 percent. Christening a Navy ship would be an appropriate honor,” said Caldera, who was honorably discharged as an U.S. Navy hospital corpsman.
Former Milk campaign manager and legislative aide Anne Kronenberg, now the city’s director of emergency management, has also endorsed the idea and believes that Milk “would be smiling to hear about the effort to christen a ship in his name.”
“Harvey understood the importance of symbolism in the advancement of civil rights. He also lived in an era when being out in the military was simply impossible,” stated Kronenberg, who co-founded the Milk foundation and serves on its board. “He’d be quite pleased that we are now in an era when not only can LGBT people be out in the military, but they can even have warships named after them. Times truly have changed.”
Some oppose ship idea
Not everyone is as enthralled with the proposal.
Avicolli Mecca told the B.A.R. that having the U.S. Postal Service issue a Milk stamp, which backers have been pushing to see for years, or Congress declare Milk’s birthday on May 22 a national holiday would be more appropriate commemorations.
“It seems inappropriate and insensitive to name a Navy ship after a gay man who opposed the Vietnam War and war in general. Especially if that ship were to be involved in America’s next war in the Middle East, a war that Harvey would no doubt have opposed, if he were alive today,” emailed Avicolli Mecca. “The Milk who served in the Navy during the Korean War 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, were completely different individuals. It was like that back then. People were transformed by the incredible times we lived in. I know that I was.”
Nicoletta also said he respectfully disagrees with the thinking behind the idea. He told the B.A.R. that his opposition, though, has “little to do with” Milk’s anti-war stances he took later in life and more to do with his own.
“Though I would never presume to guess where either Scott Smith [Milk’s late executor] or Harvey would have landed on this issue, I do know that both their families had proud decorated military histories and I recall both men to be very patriotic, so I empathize with Harvey’s family of origin and his nephew Stuart Milk wanting to honor that history in this instance,” wrote Nicoletta in an emailed response.
“I included Harvey’s military photo in my curation of the Milk Plaza plaque photo series because it represents an essential variable in the arc of Harvey’s political identity. But this is also a good time to remember that dissent is also patriotic and that is why I oppose this affiliation personally,” added Nicoletta.