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History comes to Halsted

Dedication of GLBT "outdoor museum" recognizes 25th anniversary of National Coming Out Day

  • Courtesy of the Legacy Project.
Courtesy of the Legacy Project.
September 25, 2012|Tony Peregrin , @TonyGrin | For RedEye

The Art Deco, rainbow-ringed pillars lining the streets of Boystown since 1998 will shine a little brighter next month with the long-awaited addition of bronze plaques honoring gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) trailblazers who have had a significant impact on world history and culture.

The Legacy Walk—a veritable outdoor museum located on one-half mile of North Halsted Street in Lakeview—will feature 18 plaques bearing a laser-cast image of an inductee along with a 300-word biographical paragraph.

In recognition of October as Gay and Lesbian History Month, the dedication of the Legacy Walk will take place on October 11—the 25th anniversary of National Coming Out Day. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn, both strong supporters of the project, are expected to attend the event.

"The Legacy Walk is the only installation of this kind in the world dedicated to celebrating gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people," said Victor Salvo, founder and executive director of the Legacy Project. "The plaques are part of a multifaceted education initiative designed to inspire GLBT kids, many of whom are forced to suffer in social isolation, with compelling stories about historically significant role models."

Oscar Wilde, Keith Haring, Harvey Milk, James Baldwin and Jane Addams are a few of the more widely known inductees in this inaugural class of plaques, but there are others, such as the Two Spirit People—Native American and Canadian First Nation GLBT people with mixed gender roles—who may be less recognizable at first glance, an intentional decision by Legacy Project leaders to showcase the diversity of the GLBT community.

Nathen Steininger, representing the Two Spirit Nations of North America, is expected to attend the outdoor, tented dedication ceremony, as is the family of U.S. Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, whose coming out to his commanding officer in the mid-1970s launched the issue of gays serving openly in the military into the national consciousness. In recognition of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell 36-and-half years later, the dedication of Matlovich's plaque will function as the centerpiece of the dedication and will be accompanied by a full military color-guard and the playing of Taps.

Salvo, 55, and Owen Keehnen, 52, founding committee member and Legacy Project secretary, compiled more than 150 biographies for potential GLBT inductees—including nominations submitted by the public via the project's website. The project's selection committee, a broad spectrum of GLBT academics and community leaders, cast their votes to determine the final roster of inductees, which was then submitted to the City of Chicago for review.

"This inaugural class of plaques is dedicated to the accomplishments and contributions of 18 GLBT individuals, but there are potentially thousands of inductees," said Keehnen, co-author of historical biographies exploring two notable Chicago gay icons, "Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow" as well as "Jim Flint: The Boy From Peoria." "Community involvement is what this project is all about. This is about all of us. It's about reclaiming our history. Just in the past few months there have been people interested in nominating Frank Kameny and Sally Ride for a plaque in 2013. If someone wants to nominate an individual they can do so through the website. The main guideline is that all the nominated and honored individuals must be posthumous."

The dedication ceremony marks the end of Phase I of a two-year installation plan. Phase II rolls out in 2013, when the remaining 18" x 24" plaques will be installed for a total of 34 historic markers.

"The original plan called for four plaques per pylon, but the Chicago Department of Transportation nixed the two on the street side early on out of fear people would stand in the street to photograph them with their back to traffic," added Salvo. "We were disappointed but we understood their concern."

In 2014, the plaques will begin to rotate into a new visitor's center in an effort to continually engage the public with new Legacy Walk inductees. The visitor's center, which is still in the planning stage, will be located somewhere along the Legacy Walk route between Belmont and Grace Street.

The costs associated with maintaining the visitor's center, which will house plaques and provide a staging area for organized tours, as well as the price tag for 34 rotating bronze markers were largely met by plaque sponsors and donations.

"Altogether we have raised around $225,000 to date, the vast majority of which came from the $10,000 [donated by] each of our plaque sponsors," explained Salvo. "This does not include ticket sales to the dedication and any monies that will be donated between now and the end of the fiscal year. Though we are an exceptionally lean organization, our expenses are projected to be about 90% of revenues. This is an extremely costly installation."

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