It’s CASTRO MONTH at SFGATE. We’ll be diving deep into the neighborhood for the entirety of January as part of a new series where we’ll be highlighting a different corner of San Francisco every month this year.
Tessa McLean Jan. 13, 2021 (SFGate.com)
I needed to get out of the house.
The pandemic was getting worse by the day. I’d spent the holidays going absolutely nowhere, and the sadness and anger I felt as I watched the siege on America’s Capitol was about to consume me. Seven days into 2021, and I was already burnt out.
I took a short drive over to the Castro, pocketed my headphones, set my phone to silent, and found myself staring down at a 3-by-3-foot bronze plaque embedded into Castro Street’s dark gray sidewalk.Read More
Jane Addams was my first stop on the Rainbow Honor Walk, a roughly mile-long (roundtrip) walk of fame honoring notable LGBTQ individuals throughout history. I had started at Harvey Milk Plaza at the southwest corner of Castro and Market streets, and walked south to reach Addams’ lightly weathered square. Under her bronze-etched Victorian-era hat, she looks up at me with concern, though I may be projecting after the week we’ve all had.
She’s a familiar face to me as she’s the founder of Hull House in Chicago, where I’m from, and yet, I didn’t know she was gay until this moment. Her queer identity is not what she’s known for, of course, but the activist preached social reform for women, children and immigrants during a time when simply living with another woman and sharing a double bed was vilified.
As I continue my stroll south on Castro, I stop and read every plaque, a sight that clearly confused a few passersby. It doesn’t appear to be a common activity in the neighborhood, unsurprisingly since it’s easy to miss the comparatively small sections of the sidewalk if you’re chatting with a friend or staring at your phone.
When David Eugene Perry dreamt up the idea of an LGBTQ walk of fame in 1994, we were in the midst of another epidemic, this one killing primarily gay men. “When we were in the deepest years of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, I was thinking how sad the Castro was and how we were in danger of losing a generation,” Perry said. “I’m hoping that this will be an ongoing source of education and edification of the LGBTQ community.”4
It took almost 20 years to make his plan a reality, working closely with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the Department of Public Works, while forming the Rainbow Honor Walk into a nonprofit organization. The first 20 plaques were laid in 2014, after a lengthy process to choose who would be honored in this first installation.
While you may take the walk and wonder where Harvey Milk’s plaque is, it was important for organizers to honor figures from across the globe and educate visitors on those who might be lesser known to the general public. “We said, ‘What would Harvey do?’ Harvey has a state holiday, he already has a small plaque near his camera shop. He has a Muni stop. He would want it to go to someone else that people didn’t know,” Perry said. “I’ve always said Harvey does have a plaque; he gave it to George Choy.”
Choy was an AIDS activist who persuaded the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution for Project 10, the counseling program for LGBTQ teens in public high schools, and his plaque is on the same stretch of street as Addams’.
In 2016, 24 more honorees were chosen, though only an additional 16 plaques have been installed since then. The group is continuing to focus on choosing people who lived openly as LGBTQ, those who had contributed to their field and those who are no longer living.
It’s a work in progress, Perry said, one he said he hopes outlives him and already has been mapped out to go all the way down Market Street to the LGBT Center at Octavia Boulevard. While the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the installation of the next eight plaques, Perry has been thankful that it hasn’t delayed much more of the organization’s work. Fundraising has moved primarily online, but they were still able to raise the money they needed in 2020, largely through corporate and private donations. Each plaque costs about $5,000 to produce, and the Community Benefit Districts maintains the plaques to keep them clean and free of graffiti (something I saw on poor Josephine Baker during my excursion). Aside from a few flecks of paint, Perry said “the biggest enemy of the plaques is chewing gum.”
All work done on behalf of the organization is volunteer-based, so 100% of the money goes toward building and preserving the walk.
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents District 8, which includes the Castro, said the walk is an important part of celebrating the history of the neighborhood, even though more could be done to commemorate LGBTQ history in the city. “It’s the most important gayborhood in the world,” Mandelman said. “We’re just getting started on commemorating the history of the queer community and the AIDS crisis in the Castro. I love the Rainbow Honor Walk, and we need to continue building it out, and I also feel like there’s a whole lot more we need to do. We need a real museum, too. I think that’s important.”
During the final block of my walk, I realize I got so distracted counting vacant storefronts on Market Street that I missed a plaque. I turn around to double back to Glenn Burke’s square, Major League Baseball’s first out gay player who was born and raised in Oakland. But as I read on, a giant smile spreads across my face and a soft “ha!” escapes my lips as I read on to learn that he was also the inventor of the high five. This little factoid, inconsequential in the grand scheme of all the achievements detailed on these memorials, brought me momentary joy I was unaware I needed so badly.
We’re still in a pandemic. Violent insurrectionists threatened our democracy. With museums still closed for an indefinite period, the familiar shuffle from plaque to plaque gave a meditative quality to this temporary escape. As I read each plaque beneath my sneakered feet, taking a deep breath as I tried to let it sink in, they’re a reminder of what we’ve overcome as a nation before and how much progress there has been. Alan Turing helped to beat the Nazis in World War II. Sally Ride became the first woman in space. Christine Jorgensen was the first widely known person to have sex reassignment surgery.
And while snapping a photo of the high-five trivia fact I will now never forget, I even saw a woman who had passed me earlier stop and study a plaque under her feet.
Tessa is a Local Editor for SFGATE. Before joining the team in 2019, she specialized in food, drink and lifestyle content for numerous publications including Liquor.com, The Bold Italic, 7×7 and more. Contact her at email@example.com.