Carlos Duharte, a mason with San Francisco Public Works, takes a good look at the plaque of entertainer Josephine Baker before putting on a protective cover for its installation on Market Street on Aug. 6, 2019, in the Castro District's Rainbow Honor Walk. (Patricia Yollin/KQED)
The sidewalks of San Francisco's Castro District are getting eight new residents this week. And they'll be sticking around.
Choreographer Alvin Ailey, singer Freddie Mercury and entertainer Josephine Baker are among the fresh arrivals who will be joining 28 other LGBT heroes that the Rainbow Honor Walk has recognized with large bronze plaques on Castro, Market and 19th streets.
"I can honestly say that this is one of the few things in my entire life that was my idea," said David Perry, who had an epiphany in the late 1980s as he was walking past the Castro Theatre.
"It was the depths of the AIDS years," he said. "I was very cognizant of the fact we were losing a generation of people. And I was thinking: What happens if there's no one here to tell our story? We need to memorialize our history, because if we don't, nobody else will. Or they'll tell it in the wrong way."
Perry envisioned something akin to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But it took a long time, even by San Francisco's glacial standards, to turn that concept into reality — including unending meetings, community input, appearances before city committees, the founding of the Rainbow Honor Walk nonprofit and an international design competition. Then there was the incessant fundraising, given that each plaque costs between $5,000 and $6,000.
"Every penny has been raised privately. I was pretty relentless. I was worse than Dede Wilsey," Perry said, referring to the former president of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "And I mean that in a nice way. There's a joke that when she was trying to raise money for the de Young, everyone would say, ‘Oh my God, it's Dede on the phone. I'm going to have to write a check.' I was just voted onto the board of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. And I'm hitting them all up."
Most donations to the Rainbow Honor Walk are between $25 and $100. The smallest was $1 and the largest was $22,000. The biggest single donor is retired Teamster Allan Baird, who is straight and lives in the Castro. He has given $30,000, unsolicited, in $5,000 increments. In the late 1970s, when he was a local leader of a nationwide boycott of Coors beer, his friend Harvey Milk persuaded gay bars in the city to stop serving it.
It's not easy to get a spot on the sidewalk and be immortalized in bronze. Milk, the late San Francisco supervisor, still hasn't made the cut.
"One of our board's most passionate debates was about Harvey," said Perry, a longtime publicist. "When I originally had the idea, I thought that he'd be first. But now Harvey has a plaque and a painting where his store was on Castro Street. He has an airport terminal, a Muni stop, a school, a stamp and a special state day. One board member asked, 'What would Harvey have done?' Harvey would have said, 'Everyone knows who I am. We need to elevate someone else.' "
In that particular board meeting, a young man named George Choy was selected instead. Anyone who stops by his plaque on the west side of Castro Street will learn that he was born in 1960, died in 1993, and was "a passionate activist for queer Asians and Pacific Islanders and AIDS awareness who was instrumental in bringing LGBT counseling programs into San Francisco public high schools."
The initial 20 honorees, whose plaques were installed in September 2014, included civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, social worker Jane Addams, journalist Randy Shilts, poet Allen Ginsberg, disco drag star Sylvester, painter Frida Kahlo, transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen, scientist Alan Turing, athlete Tom Waddell and writer James Baldwin.
Anyone can submit a nomination to the 10-member Rainbow Honor Walk board, which Perry has chaired for a decade. There were more than 170 nominees for the latest round of 24 —eight installed in November 2017, another eight this week and eight more in October. Discussions are often fierce about who will and won't get a plaque.
"It makes Miss America look like a walk in the park," Perry said. "Every gray hair I have is from the Rainbow Honor Walk."
In the early days, the all-volunteer board struggled to decide what criteria would be used to select honorees. "And then one board member said, 'Look, I'm sorry, here's what it is: All gay, all famous, all dead,' " Perry recalled.
But it's actually a little more complicated than that. "We worked really hard on diversity, parity and making sure we're representative of the community," he said. "The thing that's least important about the Rainbow Honor Walk is paying tribute to these people. It's more about their stories inspiring other people and another generation."
The plaques honor deceased lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals from all over the world who have all been leaders in their field and who made a difference to society.
On Tuesday morning, San Francisco Public Works installed three of the new plaques on Market Street; the other five will be done on Wednesday.
Entertainer Donna Sachet, a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board who has been described as "the first lady of the Castro," was on the scene to coordinate the project, along with her dog, Peanut. It was one of those rare moments when she was wearing ordinary street clothes.
"It's too early for drag," declared Sachet.
She'd arrived around 8 a.m., but that was fine because she's a huge fan of the project. "It's so easy to forget our past," she said.
Since the Rainbow Honor Walk is believed to be the first of its kind in the world, the board routinely gets inquiries about how it was done. Perry has witnessed a group of journalism students visit the plaque of Randy Shilts and a gaggle of Irish tourists gush over Oscar Wilde. Members of the local Federico García Lorca fan club lit candles at his plaque on his birthday, and owners of a wine shop on 19th Street wash Del Martin's nearby plaque with soap and water every week. And just last month Debbie Mesloh, president of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, told the Chronicle she loves the honor walk and is hoping something similar could be created for women.
The only act of vandalism occurred early on and was not homophobic. "The biggest enemy of the Rainbow Honor Walk is chewing gum," said Perry. He admitted, however, that his dog, the late Miss Drew, once relieved herself on a plaque before he could pull her away.
He is stepping down as board chair after this week's installation. It's time for new leadership, he said, though he'll continue as an unpaid consultant. "It's the most challenging and best work I've ever done," said the 57-year-old Perry, whose public relations firm has handled everything from the Olympic Torch Relay in 2008 and the 2016 Super Bowl 50 Committee to the quest by George Lucas to build a cultural museum in San Francisco.
Perry said the walk will eventually extend from the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy on 19th Street at Diamond down to Castro, with another offshoot on 18th Street, and continue on Market to the LGBT Center on Octavia Boulevard.
The designs for the new plaques were displayed on June 3 at an event in the Google Community Space in San Francisco, at the beginning of pride month.
"I live in the Castro, and I worked in the Castro for a long time," Rebecca Prozan, Google's director of government relations, told the crowd. "And because I walk to Muni most mornings, I see the plaques on the street. I know what they mean to me, I know what they mean to the neighborhood, and I know what they will mean in the future."
And in an age where so many people get most of their information through cellphones, laptops and other kinds of technology, she added, there's something to be said for "going old school — looking down, looking up, looking around."
That's evident on the streets of the Castro every day. On the last Saturday in July, I revisited the Rainbow Honor Walk with my friend Mike Smith, a retired political scientist from Kansas who has lived and worked in Appalachia for more than 40 years. He recognized 15 names on the 28 plaques in the sidewalk. The others piqued his curiosity.
"This is an opportunity to celebrate people who folks might not recognize or want to talk about," Smith said. "And it's really wonderful that it's being done. For people who haven't been introduced to them or aren't aware of them, if they walk by and look at what's written there, that might stimulate some interest and some questions."
Jacquie and Henry Davis, visiting from Sydney, Australia, stopped for a while to admire the plaque of García Lorca, a poet, playwright and political activist murdered in 1936 by fascists during the Spanish Civil War.
They'd become fans of the plaques while meandering around the Castro.
"I quite like them," Jacquie said. "It's a very good idea, preserving individuals and their history. And it's not like something made of plastic."