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Walking Through LGBTQ History in Boystown

Meredith Francis
The Legacy Walk
The Legacy Walk is an outdoor museum in Boystown highlighting the contributions of LGBTQ individuals. Photo: Meredith Francis

On a stretch of the narrow sidewalks that line Halsted Street in Boystown, there are familiar rainbow pylons that signify the Chicago neighborhood’s roots as a gay community. But if you look closer at those pylons, you’ll notice a series of plaques honoring 40 LGBTQ artists, activists, writers, and events throughout history. 

It’s called the Legacy Walk, and its goal is to acknowledge the cultural and historical contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. 

The seed for the Legacy Walk was first planted on October 11, 1987 at the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It was also the first time National Coming Out Day was officially recognized, and the first time the AIDS Memorial Quilt was on display.

“All I could think of was, here we are, experiencing living history,” said Victor Salvo, the creator, cofounder, and executive director of the Legacy Project, which operates the walk. Salvo, who is also in the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame, was at the March. 

“We’re being asked to embrace a legacy of contributions of LGBTQ people, and none of us knows what they are,” Salvo said, reflecting on his thoughts during the march. “And now there’s a plague that’s going to kill every person here – we did not know at the time that there would be survivors. Who’s going to remember who came before us when we’re gone if we don’t know ourselves?” 

That got Salvo wondering how to leave behind the history of LGBTQ people for future generations. 

“I started thinking about all the ways I had learned about unusual factoids from history, and it was from bronze plaques that I just stumbled upon,” he said. “It put the idea in my head that we needed an outdoor museum walk.”

Fast forward a decade. In 1997, the city of Chicago declared the Boystown neighborhood an “official gay village” – the first of its kind in the United States. A year later, the city dedicated 25-foot bronze pylons sporting the colors of the pride flag.

Around that same time, Salvo read a story about Alan Turing, a British mathematician and code-breaker during World War II. Much of his work laid the groundwork for modern computer science and artificial intelligence. But Turing’s contributions went largely unrecognized because, in 1952, he was convicted of “gross indecency” – in other words, being a gay man. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain at the time, and Turing was forced to undergo chemical castration. He died from suicide in 1954.

After reading Turing’s story, Salvo said he spent the next ten years embarking on a “personal research project.” He wanted to “identify the types of stories that were like Turing’s,” in an effort to shed light on other people whose life story or LGBTQ identity was ignored or forgotten.

In 2010, the Legacy Project became an official organization, with the Legacy Walk opening two years later. In 2019, the Chicago City Council designated the Legacy Walk as a landmark.

Today, bronze plaques on the rainbow pylons bear the names of 40 LGBTQ individuals and their stories and contributions to the world. People like James Baldwin, Marsha P. Johnson, Harvey Milk, and Turing are honored in the walk, which spans from Melrose Street to Waveland Avenue on Halsted – the heart of Boystown.

There are also historical events, like the Stonewall Riots, the Harlem Renaissance, and a plaque for “the pink triangle” – a label that Nazis forced gay people to wear on their clothes in concentration camps. 

But there are also some names that might surprise people.

“The one that probably stops most in their tracks is probably Jane Addams, and I think it’s because she’s the most famous, the most recognizable,” Salvo said of the prominent Chicago social reformer and first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her plaque sits just north of Addison Street.

“She is so lionized today, but was such a figure of scorn in her lifetime, and she endured that,” Salvo said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the plan for the Legacy Walk was to add new names, and retire some plaques at a permanent vistor’s center on Halsted. For now, those plans are on hold, but ultimately the goal is to rotate in new plaques in order to tell more people’s stories.

For Salvo, the walk gives people who identify as LGBTQ a place in history.

“We were at war with the plague and society was rooting for the plague,” said Salvo of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. “It became imperative that if you really wanted to change the hearts and minds of people, it had to be more about our own movement. It had to be about our place in the world. The problem was, we had been denied it.”

In addition to cementing a place in history, Salvo said the plaques give kids who identify as LGBTQ someone to look up to. He said the Legacy Walk is one of the few monuments in the world where “you can go and see [the words] gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender cast in bronze.” 

“Even the monument to Alan Turing in Cambridge, England, doesn’t say he was gay,” he added.

Though many of the subjects of The Legacy Walk are now of the past, the organization is looking to the future, too. In recent years, they began remote installations in different cities and a traveling wall exhibit. They’ve also expanded their digital offerings, which have become important in the age of COVID-19, as large tour groups are not possible on the narrow sidewalks of Halsted, Salvo said. 

In addition to the outdoor museum walk, the Legacy Project is working on educational programs with “lesson plans, study guides, question banks, and multimedia” to provide Illinois schools with curriculum that includes prominent LGBTQ people.

“We’re not rewriting the curriculum for the entire state of Illinois. We’re simply providing tools to make the existing curriculum inclusive,” Salvo said. “There really is no aspect of history that doesn’t have an LGBTQ person attached to it.”