The military naming a ship after a gay-rights icon that it forced from its ranks because of his homosexuality makes for a tempting story. That it is false did not stop the most powerful media outlets in the United States from reporting it this month.
“The Navy made Harvey Milk resign for being gay,” the Washington Post headline informed. “Now they’re going to name a ship after him.” A CNN story held that “in 1955, after the Navy officially questioned him about his sexual orientation, he was made to resign with the rank of lieutenant junior grade.” The New York Times claimed, “Harvey Milk was questioned about his sexuality and forced to resign.”
This did not happen. Nothing like it happened.
In researching the slain city supervisor’s life for Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco I came across Milk’s honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy, dated July 23, 1955, roughly four years after he followed the example of his parents by joining. Harvey Milk trained as a deep-sea diver and patrolled the waters off North Korea during the Forgotten War. A copy of the document in my possession and available in the San Francisco Public Library for the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, or any other journalistic enterprise to examine notes “honest and faithful service.”
But when running in the Bay Area, Harvey Milk fabricated a nonexistent dishonorable discharge to benefit him politically. Forty-one years after his assassination, many of Milk’s many admirers, including a nephew active in gay rights, tout the story as true. But Milk’s biographers all agree that it is not.
Long before I looked into this story, Randy Shilts, who literally wrote the book on both Milk (The Mayor of Castro Street) and gays and lesbians in the military (Conduct Unbecoming), chronicled Milk’s increasing frustrations with military life that led to his decision to pursue a career outside of the service. “Harvey later told voters that despite all his accomplishments, the navy dishonorably discharged him after discovering his homosexuality,” Shilts wrote. But the author pointed out that “Harvey lasted his three years and eleven months, getting the usual month cut off of his enlistment because of his model behavior.”
Lillian Faderman, dubbed “the mother of lesbian history,” noted Milk’s honorable discharge, good conduct medal, and the privacy he enjoyed as an officer able to live off base in Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death. “It was true that after World War II the military conducted homosexual witch hunts,” she wrote. “But when America entered the Korean War, the need for personnel meant that all military branches would turn a blind eye to homosexuality, just as they largely had during World War II.”
Lying about military service generally entails a civilian boasting of nonexistent service or a serviceman embroidering tales of heroism and war wounds that did not occur. More than two years ago, R. Emmett Tyrrell and this writer published a lengthy exposé of one of the bestselling historians of the latter half of the 20th century lying about a Navy Cross, Silver Star, and other commendations, battlefield wounds, a graduation day valedictorian honors, his penis size, and much else. Milk’s lies, and the lies of his well-wishers, strangely, highlight not what he did for the military but what the military did to him. The shifting point of the lies indicates that we glorify victims more than heroes. The common denominator of these two very different cases involves the yawning, listen-to-the-crickets response from those who chronicle our times. The reasons for why men lie about their military service differ. But the indifferent reactions of the media and intellectuals to their lies remain a constant.
Harvey Milk served honorably in the United States Navy. Is there now dishonor in that?