Interview with Victor Savlo, The Legacy Project
LGBTQ and Black History Month
For Black History Month, the Alliance spoke with Victor Salvo, Founder and Executive Director for The Legacy Project about individuals who, as African Americans, made significant contributions to both Civil Rights and LGBTQ movements.
1. Talk about the work of The Legacy Project.
The Legacy Project is an award-winning 501(c)3 non-profit committed to researching, celebrating, and promoting the contributions Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) people have made to world history and culture. The focus is international and multicultural. The central tools of the organization’s mission are:
• “The Legacy Walk” – a growing half-mile outdoor installation in Chicago, Illinois which currently features nearly three dozen bronze biographical memorial markers in an “outdoor classroom” that is regularly toured by LGBTQ student groups,
• “The Legacy Wall” – a digitally interactive traveling history exhibit that features the biographies of over 125 individuals from over 20 fields of contribution along with resource links and education tools; and,
• “The Legacy Project Education Initiative (LPEI)” – which combines guided tours of the Legacy Walk and exploration of the Legacy Wall with age-appropriate study guides, resource lists, multimedia, and lesson plans.
In cooperation with the Illinois Secretary of State, the Illinois State Library, the Illinois Department of Human Rights, the Illinois Department of Tourism, and the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, the Legacy Project works to share the contributions of historically significant LGBT role models with LGBTQ youth whose social isolation and cultural marginalization have left them vulnerable to bullying and loss of self-esteem. The Legacy Project is supported entirely by donations.
2. How are people nominated and how do you confirm a person’s sexual orientation?
We accept nominations through our website as well as through ongoing biographical research. Hundreds of text and database resources are consulted in an effort to piece together a summary sketch of these complex lives. People who are reasonably famous tend to have a great deal written about them to consult. The challenge is to find information on obscure people – especially those from cultures and eras where it simply was not written about. But if you are patient and dig hard enough you can uncover a fascinating, hidden history. Though most people earlier than 50 years ago rarely discussed sex at all (let alone variant orientation/identity) the historic record has revealed a great deal of information that helps us to understand in finer detail the lives of people who, more often than not, have had that one sentence removed from their biography. Given the social pressures exerted upon individuals who grew up without the benefit of an organized and vocal LGBTQ community around them, it is not surprising that most people were compelled to confine sharing the truth about themselves with their closest associates only. But the record is there in the form of personal correspondence (including love letters in many cases) which make non-heteronormative orientation apparent. This has empowered contemporary scholars to finally start discussing “the love that dare not mention its name” in a more objectively honest and rational way. The Legacy Project bundles the most recent research – most of which no one knows is there to read – into “mini-biographies” intended to inspire people to continue exploring on their own. To learn more about the challenges of doing this research you can download the paper Dead Ends and Discoveries.
3. When it comes to Black History and LGBTQ community, who would you say played a pivotal role in the LGBTQ movement?
Though there certainly a number of people we could discuss – James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Audre Lorde, June Jordan – I think it goes without saying that Bayard Rustin was the most influential African American in history. As an openly gay black man for most of the 20th century he introduced a lot of people to the idea of non-heteronormative sexuality through his work in the Civil Rights and Peace Movements. As Dr. Martin Luther King’s mentor, Rustin’s influence on U.S. History is incalculable. Long before the term was coined, Bayard came to embody the concept of “Rainbow Politics." Towards the end of his life in the 1980's he began to talk more aggressively about the second-class citizenship of homosexuals by asserting that the way society treated sexual minorities was the new barometer of its humanity. We are proud to have one of the only bronze memorials to Bayard Rustin in existence right here in Chicago on the Legacy Walk.
4. Why is it important to know about a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity?
The contributions of LGBT people to world history and culture have been almost universally redacted from the most commonly used middle and high school history textbooks. As a result LGBTQ youth are forced to grow up without understanding the historic arc of the LGBT civil rights movement, the many roles we have played throughout human history, or the contributions to culture and art and science we have made. The psychological, emotional, political, and physical consequences of this redaction have been staggering. For example, the AIDS crisis killed off nearly an entire generation of gay men because the federal government, quite simply, did not care if we lived or died. That would not have happened if our place in history had been commonly known and accepted. The very fact that we even need to explain that LGBT people have always existed and contributed is itself proof that we have been removed from the story – because our achievements have been enormous. We matter. We have always mattered. Even if nobody has ever bothered to tell us. Knowing about the variant sexual orientation and/or gender identity of people in history helps to give us a new lens through which to explore the world. We deserve to see ourselves reflected in it.