Legacy Wall Explores Often-Hidden LGBT Lives | WGLT

Legacy Wall Explores Often-Hidden LGBT Lives

Feb 23, 2016

Several surprises await those who visit The Legacy Project exhibit  on view at Illinois State University's Milner Library until next Friday. The project pays tribute to the contributions of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender individuals throughout history.

The exhibit is a two-sided curved wall filled with photographs and biographies of 125 people. They are people well-known in the realms of politics, the arts, religion, sports and social activism. What was far less known about many of them is their sexual identity.

Some of the names are familiar within the LGBT community, like that of playwright Tennessee Williams, author James Baldwin and Christine Jorgensen, one of the first Americans to speak publicly about her gender reassignment surgery. Others, by necessity, lived public lives that kept their sexual identity hidden, like social reformer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, sociologist Margaret Mead and sixties pop singer Dusty Springfield.

Victor Salvo is executive director of The Legacy Project. In addition to the traveling exhibit, the project includes The Legacy Walk -- bronze memorials to LGBT figures that sit  along a half-mile stretch of Halsted Street in Chicago. Salvo says the exhibit grew out of his desire to learn more about the people he calls his "ancestors," and to pass on their often unknown stories to successive generations.

"This is most critically for kids who are forced to grow up still today without LGBT role models, and that forces them into a position where they are culturally marginalized, socially marginalized, where they have nobody to look up to," Salvo says. "That's the world I grew up in."

The Legacy wall panels are modeled in part on the quilts which were created in the 1980s and 1990s to memorialize those who had died in the AIDS crisis. Salvo says the idea for creating The Legacy Walk and the traveling exhibit came to him in 1987 after he spotted a poster during a gay rights march in Washington D.C.

"It had some images of people like Bessie Smith, and Cole Porter  and James Baldwin, and then all of a sudden the face of Eleanor Roosevelt," Salvo says. "I was struck by Eleanor Roosevelt,and several of my friends assured me that, yes, she was bisexual. All I could think of is if more people knew that someone like Eleanor Roosevelt was part of our community maybe they they wouldn't hate us so much."

In this interview, Salvo talks about some of the people featured in The Legacy Project data base, including the late Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, Cardinal John Henry Newman, now up for canonization in the Catholic Church, and Alexander the Great, among others.

The Legacy Project currently contains approximately 425 names of LGBT figures from history. Additional names can be nominated by going to www.legacyprojectchicago.org. The exhibit at Milner Library is being sponsored by Prairie Pride Coalition. There is also a companion exhibit at the library honoring the contributions made by LGBT alumni, faculty and staff of Illinois State University.