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Legacy Walk unveils 2 new plaques under rainbow sky
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2016-10-16

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It was a moment that might have surpassed the wildest dreams of LGBTQ activist icons Sylvia Rivera and Vito Russo, memorialized in bronze on Lake View's Legacy Walk Oct 15.

Under a rainbow which cut through a cloudy sky, summaries of their extraordinary lives and enduring impact on the community were read by Lyons Township High School students Connor Trimborn and Marshall Harck before two others tugged away the rainbow flag temporarily concealing the faces and contributions now literally etched into the movement.

It was a moment of poignant achievement for executive director and founder of The Legacy Project, Victor Salvo who has dedicated countless hours over the years since he started, with "$200 on a coffee table," ensuring that the world's only outdoor LGBTQ history installation, now with 37 bronze memorials commemorating the LGBTQ individuals who helped to shape history, does not go unnoticed by the generations who follow.

The rich tapestry of the LGBTQ community and its member's capacity for positive effect on the world is just too important to be the often deliberately omitted footnote in global artistic, scientific, political and social advancement.

"Without our history, queer people are marginalized, even demonized, and stereotypes substitute for fact," City of Chicago Commissioner of the Commission on Human Relations Mona Noriega noted during the opening reception held at Center on Halsted. "Fear and ignorance is the perfect environment that allows queer people to be discriminated against and to be killed."

"Creating an avenue by which our history is integrated into the lives of children, teachers and parents gives people permission and an opportunity to recognize us," she added. "We all know the difference coming out has made to a better understanding of who we are and that we are indeed everywhere. We all know that, once the education and truth offered by The Legacy Walk replaces fear and ignorance, we potentially have a new ally."

That's why, according to Salvo, The Legacy Project is presently working with Lyons Township High School "To develop the first LGBT history elective that will be taught in the state of Illinois."

Thus the significance of a large contingent of Lyons Township students in the 150-plus audience for the organization's fifth dedication ceremony was not lost on Pride Action Tank Executive Director Kim Hunt.

"This is a very intergenerational event," Hunt noted "These are more than plaques."

For Howard Brown Health Transgender Relations Coordinator and celebrated trans activist Myles Brady-Davis, the work of The Legacy Project is more than quotidian if youth is to grow up, as Brady-Davis did, with a testament to the honored heritage bequeathed to them.

"I'm a proud Ghanian," he said. "I'm from the Akan tribe, a member of the Ashanti people. My father often told me that there 'is nothing new under the sun.' In pre-colonial times, trans people were seen as being chosen by God. They were cultural bearers and spiritual leaders within their community."

"Each generation of people try to pass on strength, skills, cultures and traditions to the next," Brady-Davis added. "Most LGBTQ youth often grow up without the knowledge of the history of people like themselves or with the awareness that people like themselves even have a history. This absence can add to the alienation that queer youth experience simply by growing up in a heteronormative community and tradition. I'm an example of how sharing one's history can literally be a life-saving endeavor."

However, founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt Cleve Jones recognized that it is not just the past that is imperiled by heteronormativity—something demonstrated by the gayborhoods that are being rapidly eroded through unaffordable real estate and the extinction of LGBTQ spaces such as lesbian bars.

"It's not just enough to remember the people who came before us but we need to be thinking ahead," he said. "We're losing the geographic concentrations of LGBT and allied people that was responsible for some very important things. What we've seen now is that these districts are being completely transformed by gentrification and displacement."

Jones asserted that the home he made in San Francisco's historic and once-vibrant LGBTQ Castro neighborhood has become unaffordable for senior, long-term HIV survivors like him who are "Targeted for eviction. They want us out of there. The younger queers can't come to San Francisco. They can't pay $4,000-per-month for a studio apartment. Harvey Milk's neighborhood is now one of the most expensive in North America."

While Lake View's average rent has long since begun the same climb, the new plaques unveiled on the pylons which line Halsted Street are a free-to-all necessity.

Activists and Rivera friends and witnesses Judy Bowen and Philip Raia traveled from Las Vegas and Orlando respectively for the occasion.

After they each shared memories of Rivera's life and hope for trans inclusion and LGBTQ community unity, Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame inductee and Puerto Rican Cultural Center's Vida/Sida staff member Maritxa Vidal noted that, "Sylvia had a vision. She used her strength to advocate for the needy, homeless, the poor, the marginalized, the transgender women of color. To be willing to be arrested multiple times because she wanted to fight for those of us [whose] voices could not be heard speaks to the strength, character and the valor of Sylvia Rivera."

Windy City Times film critic, director, writer, musician and Queer Film Society Founder and President Richard Knight, Jr. represented the Russo family and noted the recent celebration of the 35th anniversary of Russo's groundbreaking book The Celluloid Closet.

"The story of the ways in which gayness has been defined in American film is the story of the ways in which we have been defined in America," he said. "We have cooperated for a very long time in the maintenance of our invisibility and, now, the party is over."

Knight, Jr, also introduced Emmy Award-winning comedian, writer, actor and Russo friend Bruce Vilanch, who recalled the days when he and Russo would greet each other with a dip of the hand and the words "Hail Cobra," a phrase from an old movie.

"The strength of The Celluloid Closet was that not just gay people read it but straight people read it and they realized, many of them, for the first time the depth of hatred and misunderstanding that existed and, to some degree, still does—Drumpf—in this country," Vilanch said. "[Vito's] fearless and tireless devotion to helping [during] the AIDS situation became his real legacy beyond the cultural one he established."

Russo's plaque was sponsored by Knight Jr. and Jim Bailey, The Queer Film Society, Arthur L. Johnston and Jose A. Peña, Michael Leppen, Tim Miller, Patrick Schaller and Clayton Ebert and Tom Segal.

Rivera's plaque was sponsored by Stoli Group, USA. Stoli Group USA was represented at the dedication by Patrik Gallineaux, who said his work is about making sure LGBTQ people and events internationally are supported by Stoli. He was very passionate about making sure the company sponsored Legacy plaques that represented people who may have been more marginalized, and less likely to find donors to underwrite the plaque costs.

The event was sponsored by BMO Harris Bank, the Center on Halsted, Levi Strauss, the Northalsted Business Alliance, Sidetrack, and Stoli Group USA. The media sponsor was Windy City Times.

For more information, visit: WWW.LEGACYPROJECTCHICAGO.ORG .

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