USS Harvey Milk?

Should the United States Navy name a ship after martyred gay activist Harvey Milk? This is not a rhetorical question.

Should the United States Navy name a ship after martyred gay activist Harvey Milk? This is not a rhetorical question.

Mark Thompson for TIME’s Battleland.

You could see this coming. As Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has colored outside the lines when naming new naval vessels, special pleadings were bound to follow. His decision to christen Navy ships for Rep. John Murtha, labor leader Cesar Chavez, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson, are all defensible, if somewhat controversial.

But now Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., wants the Navy to name a ship for one-time Navy diving officer Harvey Milk. He was the gay activist murdered in San Francisco in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, by deranged former board of supervisors member – and Vietnam-era Army veteran — Dan White.


Those who might complain about it probably would be too old to serve aboard it. But Mabus needs to take care that the naming of Navy vessels doesn’t turn into a popularity contest. After all, he started it.

Milk was murdered before I much cared about politics and I never got around to watching the Sean Penn biopic that came out a couple years back. So, I really don’t know much about him other than that he’s highly esteemed in the gay community and that his murder actually had nothing to do with his gay activism.

He’s already been given the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, posthumously. One can debate whether this was deserved.

It seems strange, though, to even contemplate naming a naval vessel after him. To be sure, he served honorably as a naval officer in the Korean War. But he’s not a war hero. Nor did he make admiral; he left as a lieutenant, junior grade. Nor was he Secretary of the Navy; his highest political office was San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where he served eleven months.

Still, as Thompson implies, Mabus started us down this track by naming ships after other liberal heroes. Surely, Milk is as deserving as Gabby Giffords. But that’s a rather low bar.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Military Affairs, US Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Maya says:

    If you do not know much about Harvey milk, what made you write this post about Harvey milk not being qualified to be the name of a ship. Or was this just a gut thing that hear so much about. Just curious.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    It might not be deserved but it would certainly be entertaining. Can you imagine how many heads would explode?

  3. @Maya:

    Because up until the current Secretary of the Navy, there used to be standards for naming ships that didn’t include people who had no significant connection to the military perhaps?

  4. Vast Variety says:

    It’s a stretch but at least he served in the Navy.I think Milk was rightfully honored with the Medal of Freedom… he doesn’t need a ship. If we still feel we need to name something after him there is always High Schools.

    Personally I’d rather see ships named after Navel Heroes, Previous famous ships, or places and that’s it. Expanding ship names to other categories just doesn’t feel right.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    This is silly. Milk did some good work in a good cause. That does not qualify him for this particular honor. At this point we’re barely half a step away from the USS Oprah.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Maya: @?Doug Mataconis: Right. I know the basic backstory–although I did not know until today that he’d been in the Navy. That’s not unusual given the time, though; it was a draft era and most males served. My point in terms of my own knowledge about Milk is that I don’t have any ax to grind; he’s neither a hero of mine nor someone I have strong personal feelings about. He just seems an odd choice for the naming of a ship.

  7. Vast Variety says:

    @Ron Beasley: I can all ready imagine some of the scores of new inappropriate jokes.

  8. anjin-san says:

    Milk’s legacy is important, and deserves recognition. I don’t see that naming a ship after him is the right way to do it. Gays and the military is a sensitive issue, but we are making progress. This smacks of stirring the pot just for the sake of doing it.

  9. Doubter4444 says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Agreed. This is not appropriate. No biggie. But why make this become a political football?
    Seems like bait, and I so damn tired of each side baiting and the faux outrage… let’s give this a pass. If he were a naval hero or well known for his work concerning the needs and helping veterans and sailors (I resist really trying to resist the joke here!)
    then that’s one thing, but this, not so much.

  10. Tsar Nicholas says:

    The problem with lowering bars is that it becomes all too easy further to lower them.

  11. bobbo says:

    The biopic was fine; the documentary is a must-see.

  12. Andy says:

    @michael reynolds:

    What about the USS Michael Reynolds?

  13. LCB says:

    What happened to naming battleships/boomers after states, carriers after battles, cruisers/attack subs after cities and destroyers after naval heros???

    I know, I know…I’m hopelessly old fashioned. I liked Reagan as a prez…but don’t think he should have had a carrier named after him…and naming a ship after a living prez…ugh…

  14. Will says:

    I believe we’ve named a few ships after suffragists, the USS Elizabeth C. Stanton for example. Insofar as I am aware, Elizabeth Stanton was never in the Navy.

  15. Tillman says:

    This is starting to get ridiculous. We’ve got two hundred plus years of history, plenty of wars and named soldiers to name warships after.

    It’s gone beyond a “lowering” of standards at this point. Now we’re just naming ships after the flavor of the month. Pretty soon we’ll be accepting corporate sponsorships. The USS Harvey Milk, brought to you by Nestle.

  16. John Peabody says:

    Sure, we could sell naming rights! the USS Enron… wups, better make it USS General Electric… wups, the contract went to Electric Boat, let’s try USS US Steel (“Uss-Uss”?).

    USS TBA.

  17. LCB says:

    USS NFL, USS MBA, USS NBA…USS Ohio State, USS Perdue…hey, we might be able to fund the Navy with this idea. “Today’s game is brought to you by the USS NFL!”

  18. michael reynolds says:


    What about the USS Michael Reynolds?

    That depends. Would I get to assign missions to the ship? Imagine the publishing deals I could negotiate if I could park a guided missile destroyer off Manhattan. “Take a look out your window, Ms. Editor in Chief. Now, what split were you proposing for foreign rights? Yeah, that’s what I thought you said.”

  19. LCB says:

    @Tillman: Make that “Brought to you by Nestle Tollhouse Cookies!” Mmmmm…mild and cookies…

  20. @James Joyner:

    That’s not unusual given the time, though; it was a draft era and most males served.

    Certainly more served but not most. Even during World War II, only 11 million of the 50 million military aged men in the US served.

  21. merl says:

    @Vast Variety: and they all contain the word seamen.

  22. @michael reynolds:

    There’s a couple news organizations in Manhattan you could take care of too.

    Just sayin’

  23. Davebo says:

    Well they named a light attack squadron The Clansmen. Obviously not the same as the Klansmen but still…..

  24. garretc says:


    Yeah Tillman, Harvey Milk is a “flavor of the month,” sure. Just a fad, that guy…

  25. Anderson says:

    Bearing in mind that Mabus is a former governor of Mississippi, this is probably a first step towards segregating all the gay sailors in the Navy on one ship.

    (J/k … I think ….)

    But seriously … if they christen a ship the Harvey Milk, I hope they make sure it’s a replenishment vessel. The crew will get a kick out of that.

  26. Andy says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I doubt they’d let you do that, but you could go to sleep each night knowing that somewhere in the world a junior sailor is polishing your name in brass while complaining bitterly about how much the Navy sucks.

  27. anjin-san says:

    USS Bzrk?

  28. Jenos Idanian says:

    It’s too late to change the names of existing ships, but here are a few ideas for restrictions:

    Individuals only if they meet certain criteria.

    1) Veterans with exceptional military careers. (Eisenhower, GHWB, Nimitz)
    2) Public figures who died in the service of the nation. (JFK or RFK)
    3) Deceased at the time of the naming, preferably for at least 25 years.

    Let’s be blunt. Giffords’ greatest achievement to date is “not dying when shot in the head.” She had no great accomplishments before being shot, and that pretty much ended her career to date. Her recovery is a testament to her ferocious courage and determination, but it still boils down to her being a victim. I admire her, and wish her nothing but the best, but this is not an appropriate honor.

    Murtha was a disgustingly corrupt figure who disgraced his fellow Marines with his involvement in the Haditha case.

    Cesar Chavez described his Navy career as “the two worst years of my life.”

    Medgar Evers served honorably in Europe in the Army in World War II, but apparently without much distinction. His honoring here is questionable, but I’d be inclined to go along with it. I’m more troubled by the naming of one of the Evers’ sister ships after one of the stars from Friends.

    Oh, and why did the naming scheme change? It started when we started naming subs after states and cities. The reason there? “Fish don’t vote.” It started the trend of using ship’s names to gather political support for the Navy in general. And it’s disgusting.

    I read that the crew of the USS Jimmy Carter occasionally call their boat “The Killer Rabbit.” I don’t know if it’s true or not, but God I hope so…

  29. Neil Hudelson says:


    It’s disgusting you would even think of naming a ship like that.

    It would be the USS Purdue, and I thank you if would spell correctly the name of one of the nation’s greatest institutions.

  30. Neil Hudelson says:

    His honoring here is questionable, but I’d be inclined to go along with it. I’m more troubled by the naming of one of the Evers’ sister ships after one of the stars from Friends.

    .Heh…you got me there. Good one.

  31. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Neil Hudelson: Thank you. And thank God the first one to comment on it realized it was a joke.

    I have to admit, though, when I saw the name, Chandler Bing was the first to come to mind. I had let myself forget that the older Perry’s first name wasn’t “Commodore.”

    And the USS Purdue should be an AD or AS. Ship’s Motto? “It takes a tough nation to make a Tender Ship.”

  32. Tillman says:

    I still think we should give ships ridiculous Halo-esque names. USS Sound & Fury, USS Frosted Sword of Dawn, etc.

  33. Jenos Idanian says:

    I don’t recall the title, but there was a sci-fi novel where the crews got to name their own ships. There was the Screaming Death, the Oh Yeah, the So’s Your Mother, and a host of other such names — some of them downright unrepeatable.

    But seriously… we have a whole host of proud ships whose names have fallen into disuse.

    And we definitely need another Enterprise.

  34. bains says:

    Should the United States Navy name a ship after martyred gay activist Harvey Milk?

    Given that the in the military, gays can serve openly, Sure. I think it would be a stupid decision however (and I know that these kinds of things are as much decided by non-military folks, politicians pandering for votes).

    It would be interesting to see how much of a ‘vote by foot’ reaction to such a named ship might engender. And I am not talking about Milk being gay, rather knowing several ex-navy folks that would have been less (personally) enthusiastic serving on a ship named for someone they felt not worthy for such an honor.

  35. Hello World! says:

    I really don’t know much about him other than that he’s highly esteemed in the gay community and that his murder actually had nothing to do with his gay activism.

    He was killed by an anti-gay right wing nut who later hung himself after he got out of prison. Watch the movie OR the documentary please.

  36. @Tillman:

    I think we should name our ships after diplomatic euphemisms. E.g. USS A Frank Exchange of Opinions or USS Our Sincerest Apologies

  37. I don’t like the standard that this – and the Gabby Giffords naming – sets. Basically, Ray Mabus has proven in his tenure that even the naming of our ships can fall to partisan hackery. I can’t wait to hear the left complain when a conservative SECNAV gets put in and names the USS Cheney.

  38. Argon says:

    “He’s already been given the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, posthumously. One can debate whether this was deserved.”

    It would like debating whether water is wet, so no, I don’t see it being much of a debate among rational participants. Milk was a very important and inspiring civil rights figure. His example served as a visible fulcrum around which history changed in a positive way.

  39. rodney dill says:

    @Christopher Bowen:
    USS Sarah Palin
    USS Ted Nugent
    USS Rush Limbaugh
    USS Henry Hyde
    USS Charlton Heston
    USS Donald Trump

  40. JohnMcC says:

    But of course you are well versed on the biographies of people who do get ships named for them? Like – quick! – who was Reuben James?

  41. rodney dill says:

    I even heard one speak, when she was still alive.

  42. Davebo says:

    USS Charlton Heston

    Launch the Torpedo!

    We can’t, Chuck won’t let go of it.

  43. James Joyner says:

    @Hello World!: The killer was also a disgruntled former employee, no?

    @Argon: Milk wasn’t the gay Martin Luther King, Jr. or even the gay Caesar Chavez. He was a significant figure in San Francisco who became a national figure because of his shocking murder.

    @JohnMcC: Reuben James was a legitimate naval hero of a more-or-less forgotten conflict. Which is exactly why we name ships after people like him: otherwise, people would forget. Granted, the general public doesn’t know who Reuben James is. A lot of sailors do, though, because of that ship and its famous sinking.

  44. rodney dill says:

    @Davebo: Heh.

  45. Why Not ZsaZsa Gabor? says:

    I’m Gay and live in San Francisco, where we already have so much stuff – including a school – named for Havey Milk that it’s rather ridiculous. So, naming a ship for Harvey Milk makes no sense, aside from the rather blatant political posturing of doing so. That’s what it’s really all about: political posturing, it has nothing to do with honoring Harvey Milk, who has already received recognition far beyond anything he actually accomplished. I think ZsaZsa Gabor is a better selection. After all, ZsaZsa inspired everyone when she slapped that policeman several years ago, which is an urge that all of us had likely had at one moment or another. Sound silly naming a military vessel for ZsaZsa? No more so than Ray Mabus naming one for Harvey Milk in my opinion.

  46. LCB says:

    @Neil Hudelson: My apologies for the typo…

  47. anjin-san says:

    Have you heard of the ship called The Good Reuben James?
    Run by hard fighting men both of honor and of fame
    She flew the stars and stripes of the land of the free
    But tonight she’s in her grave at the bottom of the sea

    Oh, tell me, what were their names
    Tell me, what were their names?
    Did you have a friend on The Good Reuben James?
    Oh, tell me, what were their names
    Tell me, what were their names?

  48. LCB says:

    @Jenos Idanian: I always thought they started naming the boomers after States because there were to be no more battleships…and attack subs after cities because they just build that many cruisers anymore. But what you say makes sense.

    Bush 1 was a legitimate war hero. But I still don’t think a carrier should have been named after him. Destroyer, yes, perhaps…but carriers should have stuck with Battles. If they need new names, how about USS Omaha Beach? USS Ia Drang? USS Bastogne? USS Schweinfurt?

    The Navy names assualt carriers after Marine battles…they should honor the Army and Air Corp (force) by naming the big carriers after the Army battles.

  49. Rufus T. Firefly says:

    I’ve named all my pets after Tom Waits songs. It’s a fine policy and one I’d like to see adopted by our armed services. The USS Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis would be awesome.

  50. rodney dill says:
  51. Davebo says:

    The Navy names assualt carriers after Marine battles…they should honor the Army and Air Corp (force) by naming the big carriers after the Army battles.

    Well, perhaps it should be a two way street! Like the Rickover Fighting Vehicle or M1A1 Nimitz!

  52. LCB says:

    @Davebo: 🙂 Works for me!

  53. anjin-san says:

    The USS Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis

    How about honoring American icon TJ Hooker?

  54. Hello World! says:

    @James Joyner:
    James, please watch the movie or the doc. His killer was another city councilman. Diane feinstein worked for milk and did not kill him. She went on to become a senator.

    Actually, what milk did through organizing did play a major role in making millions of lives better.

  55. anjin-san says:

    @ Hello World!

    I remember that day well, I was working in SF clerking for my dad at the time. Terrible. My father had known Mayor Moscone since college, he was devastated. It’s sadly ironic that Moscone’s death led to Feinstein’s becoming a major political figure, only locals that are old enough remember she was pretty much of a zero until she became mayor. We have been saddled with her ever since.

    Milk was certainly a giant on the local scene, and is an important figure with a well deserved place in history.

  56. Jenos Idanian says:

    @LCB: Or more recent… USS Highway Of Death. USS Khafji, USS Kuwait International Airport, USS 73 Easting…

    I really, really like USS Highway Of Death…

  57. JayR says:

    I say “meh.” Harvey Milk isn’t really high enough stature to merit this honor. On the other hand, Carl Vinson? John Stennis? I think we set the bar low enough when we started naming ships after redneck segregationists.

    I’m really looking forward to right wing heads exploding when we name the next aircraft carrier William Jefferson Clinton. After all, the precedent has been set: George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford. Who’s missing here?

  58. Jenos Idanian says:

    @JayR: I think we set the bar low enough when we started naming ships after redneck segregationists.

    That’s “redneck segregationists who were also staunch supporters of the Navy.” Vinson was known as “the father of the two-ocean Navy,” which helped the US get ready for World War II and, arguably, helped the war from dragging on even longer. Stennis was known as “the father of America’s Modern Navy” by pushing for the building of lots of modern ships just as the Navy was finally reaching the point where most of the World War II-era ships were wearing out beyond repair. (Thank you, Wikipedia!)

    On the other hand, both men were also staunch Democrats, and Stennis winning re-election race after race until he retired in 1989, so yeah, maybe we should reconsider honoring him…

  59. Jenos Idanian says:

    @JayR: Ford, Reagan, and Bush were all veterans — Ford and Bush actually served on carriers. And the unmentioned Carter, a submariner, got a sub.

    Of which branch of the service is Clinton a veteran of again?

  60. Haylee says:

    I have heard local GLBTQ support for naming the next carrier Harvey Milk. I disagree. The next carrier should carry the name Enterprise. I agree a ship should be named for Milk but the name and legacy of Enterprise should continue in the Navy. CVN65A was our first nuclear powered carrier, and her predecessor CV6 fought was the most decorated ship in the Navy in WWII