Issue:  Vol. 44 / No. 42 / 16 October 2014
 
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Castro history project
selects first 20 honorees

NEWS


m.bajko@ebar.com

Sylvester James. Photo: Mick Hicks
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Fourteen men and six women have been chosen to be the first group of 20 LGBT luminaries to be honored with plaques along the sidewalks of the Castro, San Francisco's gay neighborhood, the Bay Area Reporter has learned.

The list includes the famous, such as the poet Allen Ginsberg and pop artist Keith Haring, to unsung heroes few people may know, such as Jane Addams, the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and Japanese playwright Yukio Mishima.

Known as the Rainbow Honor Walk, the project is aimed at showcasing the extraordinary achievements LGBT people have made toward human society despite the hatred and lack of rights they faced due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

A dozen people on the project's steering committee spent the last three months whittling down a list of nearly 150 nominees sent in by the public over the course of the last year to come up with the first group of inductees. The committee decided to select only from among the deceased who, when they were alive, were open about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The steering committee strived to select a representative sample of the LGBT community's gender and racial diversity. The honorees also represent a wide variety of backgrounds, from artists and activists to musicians and scientists.

The list includes three black men: civil rights activist Bayard Rustin; disco drag star Sylvester James; and the author James Baldwin. The Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and the Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca also made the cut.

George Choy, a San Franciscan who was an early member of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, was picked in part for his AIDS activism and work to support LGBT youth.

Other local LGBT leaders chosen are Harry Hay, who founded one of the first gay rights groups in the U.S. called the Mattachine Society; pioneering lesbian rights leader Del Martin; San Francisco Chronicle journalist Randy Shilts, one of the first out reporters to cover a gay beat; and Gay Games founder Tom Waddell.

Bayard Rustin

Four other famous authors were also selected: Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, and Virginia Woolf. Rounding out the group are Christine Jorgensen, who in 1952 became the first person to receive widespread media coverage of her sexual reassignment surgery, and Alan Turing, who cracked the German's coded messages in World War II but was later prosecuted for being homosexual and opted to be chemically castrated to avoid a prison sentence.

In a stark reminder that suicide within the LGBT community is not a new phenomenon, three on the list – Mishima, Turing and Woolf – took their own lives. And five were lost to AIDS – Choy, Haring, James, Shilts, and Waddell.

"Overall, I think the selections are pretty diverse. We definitely took that into consideration, being that San Francisco is diverse, and to be inclusive of every group was very important," said Benjamin Leong, 30, who co-chairs GAPA and served on the honor walk's selection committee. "Each person or nominee deserved it. It was really hard to just pick 20."

Bill Lipsky, 64, a historian who serves on the board of the GLBT Historical Society, also helped select the first group of names. He said the inaugural honorees all led exceptional lives despite the hardships and challenges each faced.

"I am excited that all of these stories are going to be told in this way. We are really talking about a group of people who were very dangerous people. They were out and honest at a time when that was not a really safe thing to be," said Lipsky, who wrote the 2006 book Gay and Lesbian San Francisco. "They could have lost their jobs, their families, a place to live if renting a place to live, everything we consider to be social support. Yet they showed that openly GLBT people could succeed."

Having grown up in the late 1950s and 1960s when there was no such thing as LGBT visibility, Lipsky said the Rainbow Honor Walk is a sign of how far the community has come and that its history will no longer be forgotten.

"It is really vital for people to understand what it is to have been a member of GLBT communities in an earlier time; that helps to explain very much why it is like it is now," said Lipsky. "Having been around in the earlier time, we certainly don't want to go back to it."

The initial proponents of the LGBT history project, Castro business owner Isak Lindenauer and resident David Perry, told the B.A.R. they are confident the community will embrace the inaugural list of people chosen. They also stressed that it is only the first of what they hope will be successive groups of inductees to be honored in coming years along the gayborhood's streets.

"It is an illustrious group," said Lindenauer. "I think it is diverse and rich with people who contributed in all fields."

Perry, who owns his own public relations firm, added, "We are everyone. We are everywhere. We do everything. That is what this list represents."

They have raised roughly $1,100 to date to help cover the costs of designing, creating and installing each of the plaques. A Facebook page will launch today (Thursday, February 3) to help raise more money and educate the public the world over about the project.

The next step is for the committee to determine the look and size of the plaques. Once that is done, the city's arts commission will need to approve the design. The Board of Supervisors, which gave initial approval to the project last year, must sign off on it one last time before the first plaques are installed.

While there is no timeline for when that might happen, Perry said, "It may be possible to lay the first plaque by gay Pride in June."

Anyone interested in making a donation or finding out more information about the project should e-mail mailto:rainbowhonorwalk@gmail.com.






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