SAN DIEGO — The U.S. Navy christened its newest ship Saturday morning, launching the USNS Harvey Milk in a ceremony in Barrio Logan.
The ship is the second of six in the John Lewis class, all named after civil rights leaders. It will serve as a refurbishment ship, bringing fuel and supplies to other ships at sea.
"Given the mission of these vessels and the unarmed means of achieving it, it is wholly appropriate to name them after civil rights icons throughout our history," Vice-Admiral Jeff Hughes said.
Milk was the first openly gay man to hold elected office in California and was active in San Francisco city politics. He became a pioneering icon for the gay rights movement even after his assassination in 1978.
It's believed that Milk is the first openly gay person to have a naval ship named in his honor.
"My uncle never dreamed of having a ship, or a street, or a park, or a school named after him," said Stuart Milk, the nephew of Harvey Milk, who spoke at the christening ceremony Saturday. "What we celebrate today is that the Navy honors the difference between tolerance and acceptance."
"He fought for people that cared. He made a difference," added Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro. "That's the kind of Naval leaders we need in officer corps and our enlisted corps and our civilian workforce."
Navy Veteran Paula Neira, one of the ship's sponsors and the Clinical Program Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Transgender Health, says it's a key distinction, especially considering the policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," that the military kept in place for decades before its repeal in 2011.
"When Harvey Milk sails, she'll send a message both domestically and around the globe to everybody that believes in justice and freedom and liberty, that there is a place for you in this family," Neira said.
Saturday's christening was closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, a few dozen people who helped build the ship gathered in a parking lot across the street to watch the launch and celebrate years of hard work.
"There was a lot of dedication and time we put into it," said Ben Hubert, an employee at Supervisor Shipbuilding. "It means a lot."
Hubert joined friends and family in a champagne toast as the ship launched.
"It's was a little emotional, I guess, to think about all the time that was spent on it. It's a proud feeling," he said.
For Joe Sapuppo, it was a chance to share his career with the ones he loves. He's proud to work on a ship named after a civil rights leader.
"It's great to show this to my girlfriend and her family," he says. "For them to get to experience a little bit of what I do is fun."
The ship will still need a year of final construction and testing before the Navy takes full control.
This story was originally published by Jared Aarons on Scripps station KGTV in San Diego.