Bob Filner, a San Diego congressman of the Democratic persuasion, wants the U.S. Secretary of the Navy to name the next Navy ship after Harvey Milk. As in the famous gay activist and San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official turned Hollywood star.
Filner’s rationale is simple: Milk served in the Navy during the Korean War and the military no longer has a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy preventing openly queer folks from being all that they can be and killing civilians in other countries (for god, oil and profits, of course).
“This action by the US Secretary of the Navy will further send a green light to all the brave men and women who serve our nation that honesty, acceptance and authenticity are held up among the highest ideals of our military,” Milk’s nephew Stuart Milk told the San Diego LGBT Weekly.
At the risk of sounding as if I’m on the same side as the right-wing Christian nut jobs who will no doubt oppose the idea because they hate queers, I think it’s a bad idea.
It’s true that Milk served in the Navy, but that was at a time when queers were in the closet because to be out meant to be fired from jobs and ostracized from families, churches and other institutions. Not to mention murdered, especially in parts of this country where they now can’t teach Chicano history or where they consider sperm a human life. There were no anti-discrimination or hate crimes laws in the 50s.
The Milk who served in the Navy and the Milk who, less than two decades later, defied the taboos of his day to have sex with men, grow his hair, smoke pot and oppose the war in Vietnam, were completely different individuals. It was like that back then. People were transformed by the incredible times we lived in.
I know. I came out around the same time that Milk did.
Even after he cut his hair and put on the politician’s suit and tie, Milk never joined the Log Cabin Republicans. He often found himself pitted against a growing conservative trend within the queer community.
It’s one thing that gays can serve openly in the military. It’s another to attach the name of a queer progressive who opposed war to a military ship. It's just not appropriate. It's like naming a Christian church after him (Milk was a Jew and an atheist). Or a bomber plane after Gandhi.
What's next? Recruitment ads in the gay newspapers featuring the Village People and/or hunky half-naked men? A pink heart medal for killing with a gay flair? A lavender box with a rainbow flag for our gay and lesbian corpses?
Putting Milk's name on a Navy ship de-radicalizes him just as the Hollywood movie did (where was mention of his work in defending the I-Hotel tenants or his marches with day laborers, or his opposition to the gentrification of the Castro?). It makes him a safe icon for American consumption. Like Mother's Day, which was the work of Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist and anti-war activist whose original call for the holiday was a protest against the carnage of war, not a way to feed the restaurant and flower industries. Is Milk's legacy going to be watered down to the point where those who knew him won't recognize him?
A more fitting tribute to the San Francisco gay rights leader would be making his birthday, May 22, a national holiday.
That way, every year people all over the country, especially young people, can be reminded of the legacy of Harvey Milk and the early gay rights struggle. It’s a far better tribute than a ship that could end up in another of America’s insane wars somewhere around the globe, wars that, if he were alive today, Milk would strongly oppose.