Two of the most famous neighborhood blocks in the world are currently undergoing major public works surgery. For months now, the center of San Francisco's Castro District - that being, the two-block stretch between Market and 19th Street - has been packed with determined, hard-hatted construction workers. They're drilling-in a lot of fantasies and making our wildest dreams come true. Like, having twice as much sidewalk on either side of the street. And planting smarter trees. Even rainbow lighting.
Castro & 18th Street, northeast corner. Photo, S.M.
Among these simultaneous projects is the installation of the Rainbow Honor Walk. Within the next few weeks, a series of 20 bronze plaques commemorating the lives and contributions of LGBT heroes and heroines will be set into the newly-poured sidewalks. The date of the unveiling is still to be announced, but according to the project's co-founder and board president, David Perry, the plan is that they will all be uncovered simultaneously.
"All 20 plaques are done," said David. He continued:
They are sitting in a warehouse at Berkeley's Artworks Foundry - the people who actually made the plaques for us. The plaques will be turned over to the Department of Public Works next week. Shortly after Labor Day there will be a grand opening celebration and we'll all be able to walk the walk. The Rainbow Honor Walk plaques are going to be on Castro between Market and 19th Street, four will be on 19th between Castro and Collingwood. The special lighting and the trees and the other features that are a part of the DPW's Castro Street Streetscape Improvement Project will be completed in October. Then there will be a huge grand opening just prior to the Castro Street Fair. So, this is the first step. We are very grateful to the City and the contractors because we get our one little moment in the sun to unveil the walk.
Castro near 19th, looking north. Photo, S.M.
The inch-thick bronze plaques measure 3' by 3' and will be bolted into the concrete. A special coating, tested by the City, has been applied to guarantee slip resistance. Each plaque will feature an acid-etched image of the honoree along with their signature and a bit of information describing their contributions to LGBT history.*
The first 20 are people who were self-expressed lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender. They stood up and came out. You will notice that the list is very diverse as far as location, gender identity and era. We have people from the late 19th Century all the way to the 21st Century. They needed to be leaders in their field. So, we have scientists, artists, politicians, journalists, and those who have contributed not only to the LGBT community but the world at large. And they are all deceased. They were narrowed down from a list of over 170 who fulfilled those criteria - and I have a few more gray hairs because of it. Three meetings were dedicated to nothing but going through the names. I'm proud of the community members who sweated and devoted real energy to determining the first 20 representatives of the Rainbow Honor Walk.
One of the names that calls up a lot of personal memories and prompts a fresh understanding is Christine Jorgensen. As a child in Catholic School during the late '50s, I was very aware of Jorgensen's multi-media exposure. She was glamorous, a former GI, and was being touted as the first to have this challenging reassignment surgery. Then came all the heated religious talk about Intelligent Design, existing definitions of sexual identity versus anything more insightful, and - since Christine's medical procedures had started in Copenhagen - all the comedic one-liners around the notion of going to or getting lost in Denmark. That was then. And now - 25 years after her death - a permanent, celebratory bronze plaque is about to be bolted into Castro Street and guaranteed to fire the imaginations of a generation or two who have never heard of Christine Jorgensen.
I think one of the most interesting parts of the process was how we would actually place the first 20 plaques. It's an alphabetical tour beginning at Castro and Market - then walking south along Castro Street, turning right at 19th, then crossing that street and coming back down to Castro on the other side heading north. It starts with Jane Addams at Harvey Milk Plaza and ends with Virginia Woolf in front of the Twin Peaks Tavern. For Sylvester, we had one very fascinating meeting to decide that - even though his given name is Sylvester James - no one called him that. So, Sylvester was listed under "S".
Sylvester's plaque - on display at the Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store (the site of Harvey Milk's camera shop). Photo, S.M.
As board chair and co-founder, I'm not supposed to have favorites. But one of them is Alan Turing, the father of modern computing. Without exaggeration, those of us who love not only LGBT history but world history know that without him breaking the Enigma Code, the outcome of World War II would have been very different. Nazi Germany was defeated because of the genius of this openly gay man. After that incredibly heroic effort, he was vilified and chemically castrated because he was openly gay. Only recently, within the last two years, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth apologized for that and Alan Turing has begun to get the recognition he deserves. The other honoree that is especially close to me is Federico Garcia Lorca - an openly gay playwright of international note in Spain. He was killed by the Fascist forces of Franco during the Spanish Civil War. These two gay men, during a time when it was not popular and not safe to be openly gay, were so.
In San Francisco, everyone thinks there is equality for the LGBT community. That is not true. We need to keep the walk going, both figuratively and literally. Until men and women around the world feel free to walk the walk as openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender members of humanity - we do not yet have a civil society. We are celebrating with this walk, as we should. But those of us who are blest and lucky enough to live in San Francisco need to use our freedoms - all hard fought and all hard won - to educate and help our brothers and sisters around the world. As you have wisely said, this is first and foremost a tool for education. And it's not just educating about the past. It's educating about the present and the future. We still do not have equal rights.
Castro & 18th Street, Southwest corner. Photo, S.M.
* Honorees of the Rainbow Honor Walk:
Jane Addams (1860-1935) • James Baldwin (1924-87) • George Choy (1960-1993) • Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) • Allen Ginsberg (1926-97) • Keith Haring (1958-90) • Harry Hay (1912-2002) • Sylvester James (1947-88) • Christine Jorgensen (1926-89) • Frida Kahlo (1907-54) • Del Martin (1921-2008) • Yukio Mishima (1925-70) • Bayard Rustin (1912-87) • Randy Shilts (1951-94) • Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) • Alan Turing (1912-54) • Tom Waddell (1937-87) • Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) • Tennessee Williams (1911-83) • Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)