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Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelangelo and Alexander the Great: traveling exhibit at Illinois Central College tells the story of LGBTQ history

The Legacy Project co-founder Victor Salvo speaks in front of the Legacy Wall at Illinois Central College's East Peoria Campus.
Camryn Cutinello
The Legacy Project co-founder Victor Salvo speaks in front of the Legacy Wall at Illinois Central College's East Peoria Campus.

During World War II, British mathematician Alan Turing helped crack the Nazi’s Enigma Machine, which was used to direct U-boats to destroy allied supply ships crossing the North Atlantic.

With the code cracked, the door was opened to ship supplies for D-Day, and ultimately end World War II. Turing’s work ultimately helped create today’s computers. He was arrested in 1952 for being a gay man, sentenced to chemical castration, and died by suicide two weeks before his 42nd birthday.

His work remained classified for much of the Cold War, and his legacy was hidden for much of history. His story is one of hundreds which inspired Victor Salvo to create The Legacy Project.

The Legacy Wall is currently being hosted by Illinois Central College’s East Peoria campus. The traveling exhibition features the stories of Turing and other LGBTQ historical figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelangelo and Alexander the Great.

“People are always just sort of shocked when they're confronted by all the information at one time, and they navigate between the names that they recognize, people like Greta Garbo or somebody like that, versus the people whose names they’ve never heard of,” said Salvo, who is a co-founder and executive director of the project. “So it's an interesting mix of familiarity as well as discovery. And it always comes down to the same question: why weren't we told?”

Thomas Payne-Brewer, director of counseling at Illinois Central College, said he wanted to bring the wall to the school after seeing it at Bradley University.

“A lot of our students are in that young developmental age, sitting in that 18 to 27 range for most of our students, not all of them by far,” he said. “Sometimes when you don't see those figures that have identities like yourself, reflected in the things that you learned in the classroom, it's easy to lose hope.

He said providing safe spaces for students who are part of marginalized communities is particularly important, because they can struggle with mental health the most.

“When we do things like this and through education, we can start to break down some of that discrimination that comes from a place of ignorance,” Payne-Brewer said.

According to a study from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 kids attempt suicide. Salvo said letting kids know they’re not alone helps with mental health struggles.

“I think the most important thing is to let kids know that whatever it is they're struggling with, they're okay,” he said. “That they're safe, that it's okay to ask questions. It's okay to not know all the answers. It's okay to say you're one thing today and another thing tomorrow.”

The project began with The Legacy Walk in Chicago’s Northalsted Neighborhood. The walk featured 40 memorial plaques on bronze pillars.

Salvo said he was inspired to create a permanent memorial to LGBTQ stories by the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was displayed at the National March on Washington for LGBT Civil Rights in 1987.

The quilt celebrates the lives of people who have died of AIDS related causes. Salvo said he wanted to further share the LGBTQ stories often erased from history.

“If you're going to talk about the American Revolution, you cannot talk about it without talking about Baron Friedrich von Steuben,” Salvo said. “Von Steuben was a gay man. And that story is extremely well documented.”

“So when I think about the issue for these folks is yes, they want to say ‘oh, they're going to turn people gay,’” he said. “It's not about that. It's about having these stories become accepted as just part of life's rich pageant.”

Groups of students from across the midwest visit the walk each year, but Salvo wanted to bring it to students across the country. They created the wall to be a traveling exhibition.

It has been displayed in California, Minnesota and Massachusetts. They’re planning to take it to Washington D.C., Nebraska and are working to get it displayed at Disney World in Florida.

Salvo said responses are often positive, and that even criticism of the movement increases visibility.

“You say LGBT contributions to world history and culture and people just sort of draw a blank when they look at you. So it's been interesting that after 13 years, finally the rest of the world has caught up with us,” he said. “I'm not really thrilled about the current circumstances under which that has happened. But it's almost always controversy that drives change. We couldn't have gotten to gay people serving in the military had we not gone through the conflict about gay people serving in the military.”

The project helped pass a bill in Illinois which requires public schools to teach LGBTQ history.

Free, age appropriate lesson plans are available on their website for grades K-12. Topics range from notable LGBTQ historical figures to world events such as the Stonewall Riots and the AIDS Crisis.

Salvo said he is disheartened by how many kids don’t know the story behind the AIDS crisis, because of the lasting impacts it had on the LGBTQ community.

“That is a story of triumph,” he said. “That's a story of learning when you're down and out and you have no other choice but to fight, that it is possible to actually teach yourself how to win. And for kids right now who see what's going on in the world, they become very frightened, and they don't know what they're going to do, to not know that people like them have been here before with exactly the same enemy. And we won. And we're going to win again.”

Salvo said it’s easy to work LGBTQ stories into history lessons.

“Jane Addams if you're talking about social justice, or the song ‘America The Beautiful’, the most popular, religious patriotic hymn in the United States, was written by a lesbian,” he said. “Sally Ride was a lesbian. We’re just part of all of these stories.”

The project is working on a primary school textbook which will be released next year. The Legacy Wall will be available for viewing at Illinois Central College’s East Peoria campus until Oct. 20.

The 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255 or 988.

Camryn Cutinello is a reporter and digital content director at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@illinoisstate.edu.