The Navy has started construction on a ship named after gay rights icon Harvey Milk. A former Navy officer, Milk was forced to resign after his superiors found out he was gay.
The fleet oiler is part of a grouping of ships being built and named for civil rights icons. Suffragist Lucy Stone, abolitionist Sojourner Truth, and racial justice champion John Lewis are all being honored as well.
Milk, one of the first out elected officials in America and a vocal proponent for gay rights, was assassinated in office. He famously exhorted gays and lesbians to “come out,” saying it was the way to change the average American’s views on homosexuality.
“We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions,” he said in a speech. “We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out.”
Milk was killed by former city supervisor Dan White. Mayor George Moscone was also murdered.
White infamously used the “Twinkie Defense,” saying that he had fallen into a deep depression after losing his seat on the board and had started eating sugary food before he went on his killing spree. A jury found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder based on the outlandish defense; he served five years in prison for the murders.
After the verdict broke on May 21, 1979, the public organized a peaceful march in San Francisco’s predominantly gay Castro District. What started as 500 people grew to a crowd of approximately 5,000. When the police showed up, the crowd grew increasingly angry. The police had raised over $100,000 for White’s defense, as he was a former police officer.
The crowd marched to City Hall. The officers, who were ordered to hold the crowd back, began attacking marchers with nightsticks. When protestors destroyed several police cars and parts of City Hall, officers used tear gas to stop the riot, and the crowd dispersed. The officers’ badges were taped over, so their names could not be read.
Later that night, the police took to Castro street, raiding a gay bar and attacking people on the streets, many of whom had participated in the march. Fifty-nine police officers and 124 protestors were injured. Two dozen people were arrested.
The clashes became known as the White Night Riots.
In 2012, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors urged the Secretary of the Navy to name a ship after Milk. In 2016, the military branch announced that they would name the new ships after civil rights icons – including Milk.