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A Tree Grows in Chicago

by Michael Bedwell

“No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky.... this tree that men chopped down...this tree that they built a bonfire around, trying to burn up its stump-this tree lived! It lived! And nothing could destroy it. … It's growing out of sour earth. And it's strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.”

- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith, Harper, 1943.

From the beginning of the ever-expanding “It Gets Better” campaign which has even enlisted the President of the United States in encouraging emerging LGBT youth to believe that their future is going to be better than their present populated by personal doubt and bullying, I’ve felt that they’ve left out a powerful component. Even those recorded by well-known gay personalities about how they prevailed over their own persecuted pasts are missing any reference to the fact that there have always been LGBT people, and how much strength the young can draw from knowing that, in their own way, they, too, come from a unique “family tree.”

Until fairly recently the average person could only identify his or her ancestry by pouring through birth, marriage, and death records in family Bibles. Today it has become something of a major industry with companies eager to sell others online access to public records or even attempt to match one’s DNA to that of others in their data base. Perhaps such tests will one day play a part in confirming a genetic basis for being gay. Until then, other than learning the occasional relative is/was also “that way,” all we have are a handful of history books that too few of any age today have read, and the collections of letters, photos, and other personal memorabilia donated to libraries which, due to inadequate exhibit space, rarely, if ever, leave their acid-proof folders and boxes. A growing but still far too small sample of images from some collections appear online, yet, like their originals, they depend on people knowing where to look. Due to precious little funding, I’m aware of only five LGBT historical groups in the entire country which have the physical space to publicly display even small parts of their collections, despite their persistent passion and hard work. And those exhibits must wait for people to come to them—at only those days and hours when they’re able to be open. This situation, combined with the indifference of most non-LGBT scholars, and the conscious efforts of some to hide or erase our history, has produced generation after generation of those both LGBT and not who are almost totally ignorant of what our people have contributed to the world.

But thanks to activist Victor Salvo, and those he convinced to join him in bringing to reality his 25-year old dream first envisioned while viewing the AIDS Memorial Quilt at the 1987 march on Washington, Chicago has literally taken some of our stories to people in the street with its Legacy Walk, the world’s first “outdoor museum” of LGBT history. After years of major fundraising, design creation, and countless meetings with multiple city departments, eighteen bronze plaques were dedicated on October 11th for the project’s initial subjects selected by a group of LGBT historians from a list of over 160 suggestions. Financially sponsored by individuals or corporations including Levis, they beam from a series of lit-at-night, 25-ft. tall “rainbow pylons” installed by the city in 1998 as a salute to Chicago’s diverse population along the half mile of the North Halsted Street Corridor. Those memorialized include artists, authors, and activists; winners of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United Nations Peace Medal, and the Purple Heart; a politician and a playwright and poet; a doctor and a dancer; more than one who died in the public closet, another by suicide, and another by assassination. One went to jail for fighting Jim Crow; another for fighting Fidel Castro. Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American; gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and the transgendered. Some who were single, some who had life partners, and a married father of four. One of the leaders of the successful fight to convince the American Psychiatric Association to stop labeling gays mentally ill, a mathematical genius who helped win World War II, and a scientist who unwittingly escalated the battle of the sexes.

One was a pacifist, and three were military veterans including one chosen from all the others to be featured in the National Coming Out Day tented ceremony attended by represen-tatives of Illinois’ governor and Chicago’s mayor. The proud nieces of onetime Air Force TSgt. Leonard Matlovich, the first to purposely out himself to challenge the Pentagon’s ban on gays, were among those who watched it unveiled, via closed-circuit TV, as a color guard made up of gay veterans stood attention while two trumpeters from the Lakeside Pride Band played Taps. Leonard’s plaque was sponsored by Chicago American Veterans for Equal Rights president Jim Darby and his longtime partner Patrick Bova.

Photo by Hal Baim/Windy City Times www.windycitytimes.com

Chicago AVER President Jim Darby, Leonard’s nieces Vicki Walker and Pam Sanders, Jim’s partner Patrick Bova

As the neighborhood is both an international tourist destination and the host of Chicago’s annual pride parade, an estimated million and a half people a year will discover his story in bronze as well as those of gay martyr and Korean War-era Navy veteran Harvey Milk, British WWII code breaker Alan Turing, iconic activist Barbara Gittings, civil rights legend Bayard Rustin, physician and founder of the Women's Naval Reserves Dr. Margaret Chung, sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey, writers James Baldwin, Reinaldo Arenas, and Oscar Wilde, transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen (who served in the US Army pre-transition as George William Jorgensen, Jr.), social justice pioneer Jane Addams, Puerto Rican activist/educator Dr. Antonia Pantoja, choreography great Alvin Ailey, artists Keith Haring and Frida Kahlo, Congress-woman Barbara Jordan, and the Two Spirit People of Native American/Canadian First Nation tribes.

Future plans include the addition of outdoor memorials to several other historical LGBT figures, an indoor visitors’ center/museum, and a Legacy education initiative with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance to combat, in the words of committee member Owen Keehnen, the ignorance that “contributes not only to antigay bullying, but also to the social isolation and cultural marginalization” of LGBT teenagers. But thanks to the seed planted and nourished by Salvo, branches of their family tree already grow in Chicago where 35 years ago Leonard Matlovich led the pride parade. In retrospect, unknown then to him or the other participants he called to join him in the street, 1977 was the dawn of what GMS editor Denny Meyer would call a “Rainbow Moment”—for the theme of that year’s parade was “Gays in History.”

For individual photos of all the plaques, go to:

Video of Legacy Walk dedication ceremony; Matlovich plaque unveiling at 54:00.

To learn more about or contribute to this vitally important project, go to:

Michael Bedwell is a member of the board of Out Military, a past president of DC’s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, and creator of the Website www.leonardmatlovich.com


  2012 Gay Military Signal