Imagine being able to walk down Halsted Street in the near future and have LGBT history right at your fingertips. That's just what Victor Salvo, Lori Cannon and Owen Keehnen hope to do with their Legacy Project. They want to create an outdoor museum right in the heart of Boystown. How do they plan to do this? They want to place four plaques on each of the Rainbow Pylons along Halsted Street to showcase LGBT people who have made a lasting impression on the world.
To better understand the reasons Salvo, Cannon and Keehnen are so passionate about this project the reader has to go back to the 1980s when people were galvanizing around the message of understanding and compassion regarding LGBT people. I recently sat down with the three of them to discuss the project, what they hope to achieve with this endeavor and what events led up to this moment in their lives. They spoke about the early days of LGBT activism which was centered on HIV/AIDS awareness starting with the Second March on Washington on Oct. 11, 1987. ( This date has since become the National Coming Out Day. ) That epidemic galvanized the entire LGBT community in a way that hadn't been done before. Both Salvo ( who was the Chair of the Committee that got many Chicago people to attend the March in Washington D.C. ) and Cannon attended the march and what struck them was seeing the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt which had 1920 panels at the time ( 12 of which Cannon made ) . When Salvo saw the quilt he realized that so many people would die off without anyone knowing what they achieved. Also, Cannon gave Salvo a poster with images of Bessie Smith, Eleanor Roosevelt, Cole Porter, James Baldwin and a few others and that poster became a touchstone for what the Legacy Project has evolved into; an outdoor, walking museum where the contributions of amazing LGBT people can be read by anyone.
When Salvo and Cannon came back from their first march in 1987 both immersed themselves into LGBT activism around the city of Chicago, but the idea for the Legacy Project was never far from Salvo's thoughts. It was also in the late 1980's when Salvo met Keehnen at the gym where they struck up a friendship that morphed into a dating relationship. They are now former boyfriends but have stayed close friends and because of their friendship they decided to combine their talents along with Cannon's for the Legacy Project.
Salvo's path in the 1990s took him many places including founding the LGPDO ( Lesbian and Gay Progressive Democratic Organization ) and IMPACT ( the precursor to the Illinois Federation of Human Rights that we now know as Equality Illinois ) . Salvo didn't stop there. He also founded the LGBTP ( Gay and Lesbian Building and Trade Professionals ) in 1994 and was a member of the founding board of the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce in the late 1990s.
Activism wasn't Salvo's only pursuit. He also wrote a column for Nightlines from 1995 to about 2000. Then in 1999 Salvo happened to be reading one of those Time Magazine retrospectives honoring the 100 Most Influential Scientists when he saw the biography of Alan Turing. Salvo had no idea that Turing was gay and that's when it struck him that if he didn't know that certain important people in history were gay ( after living a life of LGBT activism ) then most of the public wouldn't know this information either. It was then that the rainbow pylons were erected along Halsted Street commemorating LGBT contributions in Chicago that Salvo thought about using the pylons as a way to showcase history.
He also felt that the pylons looked incomplete and adding the plaques commemorating important LGBT people would complete the picture. Salvo decided to meet with Art Johnston from Side Track and Dr. George Chauncey of the University of Chicago to get their take on the project. Both men thought it would be a great idea and Chauncey even gave Salvo a dozen names of people that they could honor. After those initial meetings with both men in the year 2000, Salvo had to put the project on hold so he could attend to his business. He also felt that with the Center on Halsted project taking the public's attention in 2003 the community should focus all their energies on that endeavor. By 2008 Salvo was ready to go ahead with the project and it was while he was working on an archiving project for this newspaper that the project really began to take off. Salvo and Keehnen happened to be working together on the archiving project and during that time Salvo mentioned the Legacy Project to Keehnen. Keehnen was intrigued and became the biggest champion for the project and from that moment on goaded Salvo into starting the real work that was needed.
While Salvo was founding many LGBT organizations in the 1990s, Cannon was hard at work as a co-founder of ACT UP/Chicago and Open Hand Chicago ( now called Vital Bridges ) . Vital Bridges just served its 10 millionth meal to needy people with HIV/AIDS and has also opened food pantries. Cannon has also worked with Chicago House as well as the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, the 1993 Chicago March on Washington Committee, IMPACT, and the Tom Chiola for Judge Committee. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s Cannon has stayed close friends with Salvo and it was through that friendship that they, along with Keehnen, decided to collaborate on the Legacy Project.
During the time that Salvo and Cannon were working as activists Keehnen was honing his craft as a writer and historian. Keehnen has done many interviews with LGBT people that have appeared in many anthologies and magazines around the world. Keehnen also wrote 10 of the biographical essays in the recent coffee table book Out and Proud in Chicago. He is also the Director of Programming and also a Board Member of the Gerber/Hart Library.
Although Salvo, Cannon and Keehnen have had different paths over the last 20 years but what connects them is their desire to see LGBT History preserved. They just needed to find the right moment to go ahead with their idea. Salvo shared with me that it was Keehnen who was insistent that they get the Northalsted Business Alliance ( who owns the pylons and would be the "hosts" of the Legacy Project ) involved so the project could get off the ground. Salvo set up a meeting in March of this year with the Alliance who gave their blessing to develop the project.
In the process of developing the project they contacted Dr. Cathy Cohen at the University of Chicago and Dr. Lourdes Torres to get nomination ideas for each of the plaques. Since there is a limited amount of space for the plaques Salvo, Cannon and Keehnen decided that a nominating process is the best way to whittle down the list of potential people to honor because there are many more notable LGBT people than the 82 that the Legacy Project can honor. They plan on accepting nominations from anyone who wants to contribute through their website until May 2011 when the process will close. When all the nominations are gathered they will utilize an "advisory council of LGBT Historians to weigh in on the relative significance of their contributions to the overall history," Salvo said. Also, fact checkers and editors will be employed to ensure accuracy for every biography written before the plaques are made. They also shared with me that this project is not just to honor Chicago or Illinois LGBT people; it will also encompass people from around the world and from all racial and ethnic backgrounds going back to ancient history forward into the 1900s.
So what is the underlying idea for these plaques? Salvo, Cannon and Keehnen shared these thoughts with me. They talked about the need to preserve LGBT history for all time so future generations can benefit from knowing who these individuals were and what they did for the community. They want to raise awareness, educate LGBT youth and other young people, unify the LGBT community and finally to make history themselves. Chicago would be the first city to have a LGBT museum connected to the only Streetscape ( Halsted ) celebrating LGBT life in the United States. This will also be the first LGBT museum of its kind.
Since there is the only LGBT Hall of Fame ( Salvo and Cannon have already been inducted for their previous advocacy work ) and Chicago has the oldest Pride Parade in the nation, the trio says Chicago is the perfect spot for this kind of museum. They also talked about Chicago's passion for history and how that makes us uniquely positioned to have this kind of walking museum.
Keehnen also talked about creating a dialogue since most people are not students of history and may not know many of the people that will be honored. Since LGBT history has been erased from most history textbooks there is a need for this kind of museum which will help educators and provide role models for young people searching for people like them, Cannon said. With the recent rash of LGBT youth suicides this project is needed now more than ever, they all said. Keehnen said that education is the best way to combat homophobia and foster pride and with this project they can do both things. Salvo also said, "It will be a transformative experience for people both gay and straight" who might not know these people. Overall, they want to make Halsted Street a destination place for people of all ages with the Legacy Project.
The Legacy Project is still in negotiations with the Northalsted Business Alliance so look for a formal announcement in November on the status of the project. In the meantime they are looking for grants, donations and people or companies to sponsor particular markers. They will also be hosting house parties to raise funds and will be looking for volunteers as the project moves forward. For more information or to submit your own nominations for the project please visit www.legacyprojectchicago.org or contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 773-880-5429 ( LGCY ) after Oct. 17; until that date, they can be reached at 312-608-1198.