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USNS HARVEY MILK

by

Denny Meyer

When I was a young gay man in the late 1970s standing in his camera shop on Castro Street in San Francisco chatting with Harvey Milk, I never imagined that I'd live to see the day that the United States Navy would announce naming a ship after him.  There was an awful lot that we didn't know and couldn't imagine back then.  We didn't know that Harvey would be assassinated and become a martyr, although that was just around the corner in time.  We didn't know about AIDS, that would decimate our lives in the coming decades, although that had already begun.  At the end of that decade, I often stood on the corner of Castro and 18th in San Francisco chatting with Leonard Matlovich.  In those days, the gods of the gay revolution walked the Earth like ordinary mortals.  Back then, I could not imagine that what he started would lead to our armed forces allowing us to serve openly in Pride, some 37 years later.  Back then, I had just begun my two decades of love with my life partner; yet almost no one could imagine that the day would come when we could have married each other in any state in America!  It was, in many ways, an innocent carefree time, at least in San Francisco in those days.  We couldn't have imagined the horror of HIV, the sea of tears for those we loved, the riots, the years of protest and demanding our rights; the tears of joy when at long last our service to our country was honored,  and when we could at long last have our love affirmed.
 
All that is what makes this ship naming something incredibly profound for me now, as an old gay veteran.  It brings back, in a rush, the memories of those decades past when our history was in the making by our own actions.  Who could have known what would come to pass!  All that is what gives this moment meaning for me.
 
If I could go back in time and tell Harvey that the US Navy would name a ship after him in 2016, even he who regularly envisioned the future, even he would have laughed his ass off at the very idea.  As a young man in the early 1950s, during the Korean War, Lieutenant Junior Grade Harvey Milk patriotically served his country in the US Navy where he was a Master Diving Instructor.  He proudly wore a military brass buckle emblazoned with the seal of his specialty until the day he died.  He was a veteran who, like more than a million other gay American patriots from WWII to 2011, served in silence.  Despite what some who never served like to think, he was proud as hell of his service to his country; just as most of us gay American veterans are.


Harvey MIlk's Diving Buckle, Courtesy of Michael Bedwell

 
And so it has come to pass that on a balmy afternoon in mid August of 2016 on the great lawn of Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, a quiet little 'ship naming' ceremony was held in honor of my hero Harvey Milk.  T-A0 206 has yet to be built; the keel has yet to be laid.  But, the day will come in a few short years when American sailors will routinely go about their duties on its deck, with USNS Harvey Milk neatly sewn on a patch on a shoulder of their uniforms.  Like the students of Walt Whitman High School in Huntington New York, many of those young men and women won't have clue who the hell the namesake of their vessel was.  Just somebody from history.  But, some of them will be young gay American service members who will be thrilled to be serving on a ship named for someone who made their pride and freedom possible.
 
It would be nice to imagine a sleek destroyer or nuclear submarine bearing his name; but this fine sea vessel in a new series of ships named after American civil rights leaders will be a "fleet replenishment oiler."  According to the public affairs website of the Secretary of the Navy, "The future USNS Harvey Milk will be operated by Military Sealift Command and provide underway replenishment of fuel and stores to U.S. Navy ships at sea and jet fuel for aircraft assigned to aircraft carriers. Construction is expected to begin in 2018."


SecNav PAO illustration of the future USNS Harvey Milk

The Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus said at the ceremony,  "The future USNS Harvey Milk will play a vital role in the mission of our Navy and Marine Corps while also forging a new path in fleet replenishment. ...Naming this ship after Harvey Milk is a fitting tribute to a man who had been at the forefront of advocating for civil and human rights.  T-AO 206 will, for decades to come, serve as a visible legacy of Harvey Milk's committed service to his nation, both as a Sailor and as an activist. By adorning one of our ships with his name, his example will live on in the steel of that ship and in all those who will serve aboard her."
 
Those may just be nice words in a speech, but as a former gay sailor who served in the US Navy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they are something I could never have imagined hearing from the Secretary of the Navy in those days.  For me, its inspiring, making me puff out my old chest in pride and wiping a tear from my eyes.
 
So, progress is at hand at last.  Milk has been honored, but in fact, so have we all.  That ship shall sail honoring all those patriots who served in silence, and all those patriots who serve in Pride.

2016 GayMilitarySignal