Though forced to resign from the Navy for being gay, Harvey Milk’s legacy within the seafaring branch of the U.S. military will live on for generations.
On Friday, the Navy began construction on a hulking refueling ship called the USNS Harvey Milk, a 745-foot fleet oiler vessel in San Diego named after the Jewish gay rights leader. The ship, one of six in the Navy’s John Lewis class, was announced in 2016 along with five other noncombat vessels named for civil rights leaders, including Georgia congressman Lewis and abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
Milk was a monumental figure in the national gay rights movement, becoming the first openly LGBT politician in California after being elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977. He gained national notice for his activism and for leading a statewide effort to defeat Proposition 6, a ballot initiative to block gays and lesbians from working in public schools.
Biographer Lillian Faderman described Milk as a “nice Jewish boy” from New York who joined a Jewish fraternity in college, and who was enamored with Yiddish and Jewish culture, but was distrustful of organized religion, she told J. in an interview last year.
Milk, who moved to San Francisco in 1972, later occasionally attended services at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a pioneering LGBT synagogue in the Mission District. In November 1998, on the 20th anniversary of his death, the synagogue held a memorial service attended by over 400 people, J. reported at the time, including then-member of Congress Nancy Pelosi and a number of city officials. It was one of the synagogue’s first services at its current home on Dolores Street.
Sharyn Saslafksy, a friend of Milk’s, said she used to visit him at his camera store on Castro Street in the early ’70s.
“We’d try to tell good, fun Yiddishkeit stories,” she said.
The story of Milk’s life, including his assassination (along with that of Mayor George Moscone) by the disgruntled former supervisor Dan White at San Francisco City Hall on Nov. 27, 1978, was immortalized in two acclaimed films; 2008’s “Milk,” starring Sean Penn, and the 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk.”
“Harvey Milk was a trailblazer and LGBT community hero,” wrote San Francisco state Sen. Scott Wiener on Twitter on Monday. “The arc of history has a way of bending toward justice. Congratulations, Harvey.”
Harvey Milk was a trailblazer & #LGBT community hero.
He also served in the Navy & was forced to resign for being gay.
Now the Navy is building a ship named for Harvey.
The arc of history has a way of bending toward justice.
Congratulations, Harvey. https://t.co/STYNdAhWCv
— Scott Wiener (@Scott_Wiener) December 16, 2019