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Outdoor museum on North Side highlights gays

Legacy Walk an outdoor museum will be installed along half-mile stretch North Halsted center city's GLBT community.  It will

Legacy Walk, an outdoor museum, will be installed along a half-mile stretch of North Halsted, the center of the city's GLBT community. It will encompass 34 cast bronze biographical plaques attached to the city's Rainbow Pylons. Museum founder Victor Salvo stands next to a plaque of Alan Mathison Turing on Friday, October 5, 2012. I Stacie Scott~Sun Times Media

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Updated: November 10, 2012 6:13AM

Some of the historical figures profiled in the Legacy Walk, a new outdoor museum opening in the Northeaster Corridor, might be familiar:

— Dr. Margaret Chung, the first U.S. born Chinese woman to become a physician, and founder of the Women’s Naval Reserves.

— James Baldwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, African-American author of such works as “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and “Giovanni’s Room.”

— Alan Turing, a British mathematician considered “the father of computer science,” who broke the Nazi’s “Enigma Code” in WWII.

But it’s likely few are aware of their common denominator — they all were gay.

They are profiled at what’s billed as the world’s first museum celebrating contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to world history and culture.

Its dedication Thursday will bring Gov. Pat Quinn, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, diverse local and national politicians, and national names in the LGBT community to the streetscape in North Side Lakeview.

Among them will be surviving partners of two honorees — the partner of Puerto Rican activist and 1996 Presidential Medal of Honor winner Dr. Antonia Pantoja; and the partner of civil rights pioneer and 1963 March on Washington architect Bayard Rustin.

“I still remember in 1999, reading Time Magazine’s salute to the top 100 scientists and coming across Turing,” says the founder of the nonprofit Legacy Project, Victor Salvo.

“He lived at a time when homosexuality was considered illegal and a mental illness. He was arrested, convicted and given a choice between chemical castration and imprisonment,” Salvo recounts.

“Two weeks before his 42nd birthday, he bit into an apple laced with cyanide and killed himself. His story hit me hard. I burst into tears — for the horrible ignominy done to this man, and the fact that I’d never heard of Alan Turing,” says Salvo.

That’s when the framework for Legacy Walk became crystallized.

The first 18 cast bronze plaques began going up Thursday on the rainbow-ringed, art-deco pylons erected by the city in 1998 on a half-mile stretch of North Halsted. The pylons celebrate the heart of the city’s LGBT community, or BoysTown, in Lakeview.

Come fall 2013, 16 additional plaques will grace the 20 pylons.

“I am proud of Chicago’s diversity and our thriving GLBT community,” the mayor writes in support. “We are at the forefront in the fight for GLBT rights. . . . This project emphasizes our role in leading by example to other cities.”

The seed for Legacy Walk was planted 25 years ago, on Oct. 11, 1987. That was the first “National Coming-Out Day,” and Salvo had chaired the Chicago contingent to the historic National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights, where the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed for the first time.

Stepping onto the miles-long quilt, he reflected on the plague his community then believed would kill off the gay population.

“I became consumed with who would remember who came before us when we were all gone. I felt I needed to do something,” he says.

The longtime political activist began pursuing Legacy Walk in 199, but placed it on the shelf in 2002, as the LGBT community rallied to raise $20 million to build the new Center on Halsted.

Salvo finally took his proposal before the Northalsted Business Alliance in 2009, seeking input from a wide spectrum of leaders from that community and from politics, business and academia.

“It was something that had never been done before in Chicago or any other city. It took a long time to put together the legal construct,” Salvo says. “You see, anything attached to city property falls under the umbrella of city protected speech.”

Diverse private funders were sought for each $10,000 plaque.

San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co., for example, sponsors the plaques of two San Francisco luminaries, Chung, and Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the U.S. It also sponsors the plaque honoring Barbara Jordan, the first African-American woman elected to Congress from the South.

The plaque honoring Barbara Gittings, who successfully lobbied to overturn classification of homosexuality as a mental illness in the 70s, is sponsored by Adler School of Professional Psychology.

And one honoring Nobel Prize-winning social justice pioneer Jane Addams, who founded Traveler’s and Immigrants Aid and the ACLU, is sponsored by today’s Heartland Alliance, formerly TIA.

It’s estimated Legacy Walk will draw 1.5 million tourists a year.

“As the only international walking museum dedicated to recognizing the contributions of LGBT people to world history and culture, it will appeal to people outside of Chicago and the state of Illinois,” Gov. Quinn writes.

The biographies of all 34 honorees, and some 150 others, are compiled at An accompanying high-school education initiative is to be launched next spring.

“It’s not that people don’t know them,” Salvo says of those honored. “The problem is, you couldn’t talk about an Alan Turing in school without explaining what happened to him. And if you did, you had to talk about homosexuality, and cast it in light of him being a victim. So instead, he isn’t talked about at all. “That story’s repeated many times,” he says. “Virtually every person came from extremely difficult backgrounds to overcome incredible odds and achieve what they achieved. They are global and diverse. We want you to be able to stroll Legacy Walk and no matter who you are, find someone who looks exactly like you.”

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