USS Harvey Milk would be a fitting tribute
C.W. Nevius, Chronicle Columnist
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Petty local politics shouldn't ruin a truly meaningful national gesture, which is naming a U.S. Navy ship after gay icon Harvey Milk.
A ship named for the first openly gay supervisor in San Francisco seems like such a bold and audacious gesture that you wonder whether the Navy would consider such a thing. Actually, it might. Last week, the service commissioned the Cesar Chavez, a ship named for the Mexican American labor leader. Chavez served two years in the Navy during World War II.
So the Harvey Milk makes sense. Although it would be controversial in conservative political circles - some Republicans howled at the Chavez christening - it would stress that gay and lesbian men and women serve the country, too.
Zoe Dunning, a lesbian and retired Navy commander, spoke in favor of the naming at a supervisors hearing earlier this week. She wholeheartedly supports the idea, and in an interview noted that Milk not only served in the Navy during the Korean War, but also was a diving instructor, a physically demanding job.
"How very butch of him," she said, unable to resist poking fun at the stereotype of a gay sailor.
So far, so good. Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, made the formal request to the Secretary of the Navy, and supporters lined up.
Then some people lost their compass.
Supervisor Christina Olague, who voted against the idea in committee this week, thinks Milk's objection to the war in Vietnam makes a Navy ship a poor choice.
"It's a warship," she said. "I'm not convinced that reflects Harvey Milk values."
Even more vehement is gay activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca.
"Why not name a bomber after Gandhi?" he asks. "The purpose of the military is to kill people, no matter how we look at it. I know Harvey opposed the Vietnam War, and if he were alive, he would be against the wars we are in now. I think it is inappropriate."
Basically, everyone is trying to speak for Milk, who was assassinated by a former colleague in 1978. So it might be a good idea to check in with someone who actually talked about military service with him.
That would be Bob Dockendorff, a gay man who is a retired captain in the Navy Reserve. Dockendorff served three years in Vietnam and 25 years in the service. He says he and Milk often talked about their Navy days.
"Harvey would have absolutely loved the idea that a naval ship was named after him," Dockendorff said. "He loved the Navy. He thought the Vietnam War was a mistake, but we all did. He wasn't antimilitary at all."
On one hand I get the objections. A warship named for a gay advocate may sound contradictory. But as Dunning says, the Navy isn't even building battleships these days. The Chavez is a supply ship. Surely the opponents wouldn't object to that.
Instead they want a national holiday or a statue. That would be fine but it wouldn't have the impact of a Navy ship.
Dunning says she discussed this with her wife, who was also in the Navy.
"She was aboard the Samuel Gompers," Dunning said. "And she had no idea who that was. So she looked into it and found out he was the founder of the labor movement in the United States."
The same would be true of the ship named the Harvey Milk. The name would be on the bow, the crew would wear it on their uniform, and wherever it went people would ask: Who was Harvey Milk?
And the men and the women of the U.S. Navy would tell them.