What’s in a name? U.S. memorials are telling.

Illustration of ship in ocean with American flag above and text reading 'USNS Harvey Milk (T-AO 206)' (U.S. Navy)
A photo illustration of the Military Sealift Command fleet oiler T-AO 206, which will be named USNS Harvey Milk (U.S. Navy)

The U.S. Navy recently announced that one of its ships will be named for Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to hold elective office in California.

It’s the first U.S. Navy vessel to honor an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights. It also represents a homecoming of sorts for a man whose Navy service was largely unknown to the public.

Milk served from 1951 to 1955 as a deep-sea diver aboard the USS Kittiwake, a submarine rescue ship. He attained the rank of lieutenant, junior grade, before receiving an honorable discharge.

Uniformed naval officer posing for photo (U.S. Navy)
Harvey Milk as a young officer (U.S. Navy)

But his activism shaped his legacy.

Arguing for fair treatment of the LGBTI community and other minority groups, Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. He was murdered the following year by a rival politician, but remains a symbol of courage.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said that the USNS Harvey Milk will be among a class of ships named for famous civil rights figures.

Other ships in this category will honor abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren (who led the court when it desegregated public schools in America), and women’s rights activist Lucy Stone.

Who gets honored, and why

Honoring distinguished people by naming ships follows certain rules in the U.S.

The Navy, for example, names vessels by categories. Nuclear aircraft carriers may be dedicated to presidents, admirals or politicians, while a guided missile cruiser is named for distinguished Americans or famous battles.

Monuments in Washington are reserved for revered presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln) or towering figures, such as Martin Luther King Jr.

Bronze statue of man in cowboy clothing (Dave and Margie Hill/Kleerup)
A statue of actor John Wayne stands in front of the airport named for him in Southern California. (Dave and Margie Hill/Kleerup)

U.S. airports, cultural centers and college buildings are usually named for famous locals, alumni or donors. John Wayne Airport — in Orange County, California — honors an actor forever associated with cowboy movies. Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport, also in California, memorializes the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip, who lived nearby.

Building with wavy walls varying in height (Carol M. Highsmith Archive/Library of Congress)

The Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles, honors a famous movie producer. (Carol M. Highsmith Archive/LOC)

While buildings and airports are often named for deceased heroes, universities sometimes name buildings after living people who make large donations.

Today, many Americans debate whether monuments dedicated to U.S. Civil War generals who fought for the Confederacy should be dismantled or renamed.

But honoring famous people isn’t always so serious or sensitive.

Cable television channel HLN reports that U.S. comedian Stephen Colbert once urged his fans to rig a NASA vote to name a room in the International Space Station by writing in Colbert’s name rather than the four choices offered by NASA (Serenity, Legacy, Earthrise and Venture).

Although the final vote put Colbert at the top, NASA would not do it. The space agency showed its own sense of humor by instead dedicating one of the space station’s exercise machines as the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (COLBERT).