The reason the US Navy is naming a ship after queer pioneer Harvey Milk might surprise you

Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk is well known as a trailblazing US politician and LGBT+ rights pioneer – but few people are as familiar with his history in the US Navy.

That’s about to change as on Friday the Navy will begin to construct the USNS Harvey Milk, a fleet oiler that will provide fuel to ships and aircraft. He is among several civil rights leaders, including abolitionist Sojourner Truth and suffragist Lucy Stone, who will have ships named after them.

Almost 30 years before his election, Milk was a Naval dive officer based in San Diego. Coming from Lithuanian Naval family, he successfully graduated from officer school and served as a diving officer on a submarine rescue ship during the Korean War, eventually reaching the rank of junior grade lieutenant.

Unfortunately, this was the 1950s, when the idea of a gay person serving in the military was unthinkable.

When Milk’s superiors caught him in a park that was popular with gay men, his sexuality immediately came into question (although one has to wonder what his superiors were doing there in the first place). Milk was forced to resign from the Navy in 1955.

He later moved to New York where he worked as a teacher, an insurance analyst and a production associate for Broadway musicals. It would be several years before he settled in San Francisco, known then as the “gay capital” of America, where he began his political career.

The rest is history: in California, Milk became the first openly gay man ever to be elected to public office, and as a city supervisor he was a leading figure in calling for greater LGBT+ visibility.

“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 the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California (Bettman/Getty)

Unfortunately, his career was cut short on November 27, 1978 when he was assassinated by Dan White, another city supervisor who had lost his job. But Harvey Milk’s legacy lives on as a true LGBT+ icon.

He was posthumously inducted into the California Hall of Fame after being portrayed by Sean Penn in the film ‘Milk’, and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2009.

The naming of a Naval ship in his honour signals a real turning point for the US military. When the Navy announced the ship’s name in 2016, Scott Wiener, then a San Francisco supervisor, explained just how significant the moment was.

“When Harvey Milk served in the military, he couldn’t tell anyone who he truly was,” he wrote. “Now our country is telling the men and women who serve, and the entire world, that we honour and support people for who they are.”

Harvey Milk was also honoured earlier this year by San Francisco International Airport, which unveiled a new exhibit dedicated to his life and works inside its Terminal 1.