This June the National Archives is commemorating National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Pride Month, which honors the important contributions that LGBTQ+ Americans have made to U.S. history and culture. Visit our website for more information. Today’s post is from Jen Hivick at the National Personnel Records Center, and looks at civil rights activist Harvey Milk’s time in the military.
Did you know that the National Personnel Records Center has uploaded military records for some very notable service members? They are online at the Persons of Exceptional Prominence (PEP) webpage and features veterans ranging from Bea Arthur to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
One “personal of exceptional prominence” is Harvey Bernard Milk. Although best known as the first openly gay man to be elected to office in California, before his tragically short-lived career in politics he served in the U.S. Navy from 1951 until 1955.
Milk’s military record gives us information about his family, his childhood, and his service in the Navy. Documents in it include a copy of his birth certificate, his high school transcript, and his application to become an officer.
His passion for sports comes through in his application. He lists the many sports he played in high school and college, and notes that his biggest hobby is sports, where he originally said he plays “as much time as allowed” before scribbling that out and estimating that he spends roughly 15 hours a week playing them.
He had graduated from high school with the intent of becoming a high school teacher, but his grades at the New York State College for Teachers were fairly poor and he was not drawn to teaching. Unsure what to do after college and influenced by his parents—both of whom served in the Navy during World War I—Milk opted to pursue military service after graduating. The United States was in the midst of the Korean War at the time, and in later life Milk spoke about his experiences in the Navy with pride.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve as an office candidate in July 1951, and his record shows that he stood out very early. A memo sent in October that same year said that he “is considered very good officer material,” and a report by his battalion commander indicates that he was “a good leader” and “outstanding.” He was appointed as a Navy Reserve officer in May 1952.
During his time in the Navy, Milk primarily served as an operations officer on rescue submarines. From 1952 to 1954 he was stationed on the USS Chanticleer rescue submarine as well as the USS Kittiwake rescue submarine. During this time, he saw action in the Korean War.
At some point, although his record does not indicate when, the Navy discovered that Milk was homosexual. He was confronted in December 1954 about participating in a “homosexual act” in 1953, and upon questioning admitted to having several more liaisons with men.
Like many gay men in the military at this time, he was forced out of service. He was told that if he did not voluntarily resign from the Navy Reserve, accepting an “Other Than Honorable” discharge and giving up on any military benefits he would otherwise have been entitled to, he would be court-martialed. Milk opted to willingly resign, and in January 1955 was discharged from the military.
After his resignation, Milk struggled to find a job—he drifted from state to state and job to job, unable to stick with anything for long. He worked as a teacher, a statistician, and the owner of a camera store. It was not until 1973, when his frustration with the local political climate in California reached a boiling point, that he became involved in politics.
Milk’s legacy in politics is well-known. He was the first openly gay politician in California and provided inspiration to a generation of gay men and women. His tragic assassination in 1978, when he was at the height of his popularity, created an outpouring among not only people in San Francisco, but people throughout the United States. Within a decade of his death, he was the subject of biographies and documentaries.
His legacy in the military is murkier. Although Milk always said he was proud of his service in the Navy, the military’s stance on gay service members continued to be discriminatory for decades after his discharge—and as such, Milk did not receive much recognition from it. It was not until the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011, and the gay rights achievements of the 2010s, that his military legacy was reappraised.
In 2016, then Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that a new line of replenishment oilers would be named after notable civil rights leaders. USNS Harvey Milk was christened in November of 2021; it was the second ship in the line. During the ceremony, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro invoked Milk’s forced discharge as one of the “wrongs of the past” that had occurred when the military discriminated against non-heterosexual men and women.
These days, veterans who were forcibly discharged or court-martialed have more options. LGBTQ+ veterans who were discharged due to their sexuality or gender identity can apply for a discharge upgrade.
Read more about Harvey Milk in our blogs: