Navy to build ship named for slain gay ac­tivist Milk

Mil­i­tary had forced him to re­sign over sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion

Orlando Sentinel - - NATION & WORLD - By Marisa Iati

By the time Har­vey Milk’s su­pe­ri­ors in the U.S. Navy of­fi­cially ques­tioned him about his sex­u­al­ity, he had grad­u­ated from of­fi­cer school and served as a div­ing of­fi­cer on a sub­ma­rine res­cue ship dur­ing the Korean War.

Then his su­pe­ri­ors caught him in a park that was pop­u­lar with gay men, his nephew said. The sight­ing raised ques­tions about Milk’s sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion in an era when the mil­i­tary banned gay, les­bian and bi­sex­ual ser­vice mem­bers. Milk was forced to re­sign.

In a move that sig­naled an about-face on the is­sue of gay rights, the Navy last week be­gan to con­struct the USNS Har­vey Milk, a fleet oiler that will pro­vide fuel to ships and air­craft. The Navy an­nounced in 2016 that Milk’s name would ap­pear on a ship, along with other civil rights lead­ers.

Join­ing the Navy was a tra­di­tion in Milk’s fam­ily. His Lithua­nian-born fa­ther, Wil­liam, and his mother, Min­erva, both served, ac­cord­ing to a bi­og­ra­phy on the web­site of the Har­vey Milk Foun­da­tion. Milk stud­ied math and his­tory at New York State Col­lege for Teach­ers, which is now the State Univer­sity of New York, be­fore he joined the Navy and started Of­fi­cer Can­di­date School in New­port, Rhode Is­land.

Life af­ter the Navy took Milk to New York, where he worked as a teacher, a stock an­a­lyst and a pro­duc­tion as­so­ciate for Broad­way mu­si­cals. He moved to San Fran­cisco in 1972 and opened a cam­era shop in the Cas­tro Dis­trict, which was known for its gay com­mu­nity.

Milk quickly be­came a pow­er­ful lo­cal ac­tivist. He founded the Cas­tro Vil­lage As­so­ci­a­tion for LGBTQ-led busi­nesses, sat on San Fran­cisco’s Board of Per­mit Ap­peals and in 1978 was sworn in as a city-county su­per­vi­sor.

In ad­di­tion to ad­vo­cat­ing for poli­cies that would af­fect all res­i­dents, Milk was also a fer­vent pro­tec­tor of gay rights. He joined oth­ers in op­pos­ing Propo­si­tion 6, a Cal­i­for­nia bal­lot ini­tia­tive that would have man­dated fir­ing gay teaches from pub­lic schools, The bill, spon­sored by Repub­li­can state Sen. John Briggs, was de­feated.

Milk urged gay peo­ple to pro­claim their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions as a way to fight for equality.

“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.”

Peo­ple reg­u­larly lobbed death threats at Milk, who cre­ated sev­eral it­er­a­tions of his will in case he were to be as­sas­si­nated. “If a bul­let should en­ter my brain, let that bul­let de­stroy ev­ery closet door,” he said in one ver­sion.

Milk’s pre­dic­tion be­came re­al­ity on Nov. 27, 1978, when former Su­per­vi­sor Dan White en­tered city hall through a base­ment win­dow, killed Mayor Ge­orge Moscone and shot Milk sev­eral times. Moscone had de­cided days ear­lier not to reap­point White to the leg­isla­tive body.

Dianne Fe­in­stein, then a su­per­vi­sor and now a Demo­cratic se­na­tor from Cal­i­for­nia, found Milk’s body and told peo­ple who gath­ered at city hall that Moscone and Milk, then 48, had been killed. White pleaded “di­min­ished ca­pac­ity” at trial be­cause he had fallen into a de­pres­sion and, among other things, eaten a lot of sugar-heavy food be­fore the killings.

Us­ing that so-called “Twinkie de­fense,” a jury found White guilty of vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter, in­stead of mur­der. Ri­ots and can­dle­light vig­ils took place to ex­press out­rage at the ver­dict. White served five years in prison him­self.

In con­trast with White’s sui­cide, which mostly went un­no­ticed by the pub­lic, Milk’s legacy lives on.

It wasn’t un­til more than a decade af­ter his death that the Navy would have been barred from forc­ing Milk out for be­ing gay. Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton in 1993 signed a pol­icy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which banned ha­rass­ment of “clos­eted” ser­vice mem­bers but still banned openly LGBTQ peo­ple from the armed forces. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama re­pealed the pol­icy in 2011, open­ing the door for LGBTQ mil­i­tary mem­bers to re­veal their and later killed sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions.

The San Fran­cisco Board of Su­per­vi­sors in 2012 urged the sec­re­tary of the Navy to name a ship af­ter Milk, one of the na­tion’s first openly gay elected of­fi­cials. The an­swer to their re­quest would come four years later.

“When Har­vey Milk served in the mil­i­tary, he couldn’t tell any­one who he truly was,” Scott Wiener, then a San Fran­cisco su­per­vi­sor, wrote in 2016 when the Navy an­nounced the ship’s name. “Now our coun­try is telling the men and women who serve, and the en­tire world, that we honor and sup­port peo­ple for who they are.”


Stu­art Milk, nephew of slain former San Fran­cisco su­per­vi­sor and gay ac­tivist Har­vey Milk, thanks Cal­i­for­nia state As­sem­bly­man Todd Glo­ria, far left, and oth­ers on Dec. 13.


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