On the afternoon of Oct. 14, the Legacy Walk dedicated two new plaques, acknowledging both a prominent gay sports figure and the celebration for a historic milestone for Illinois. This year's additions honored gay Major League Baseball (MLB) player Glenn Burkeand Illinois' statewide 2013 marriage-equality victory.
Joining Legacy Project co-founder and CEO Victor Salvo during the ceremony were Chicago Cubs Co-Owner Laura Ricketts (who also led the investment group that purchased the Chicago Red Stars); OutSports contributing writer Ken Schultz; Equality Illinois Board Member Paul DeSousa; ACLU Director of Communications and Public Policy Edwin Yohnka; and a host of Legacy Walk volunteers and board members.
After the dedication, the group enjoyed an informal with Ald. Bennett Lawson (44th Ward) at Sidetrack, which featured film clips of Burke and a buffet provided by The Chicago Cubs.
In his remarks about marriage-equality, Salvo recalled that the first challenge to marriage exclusion of same-sex couples in the United States came in 1970, when Joseph Baker and Michael McConnell applied for a marriage license in Minneapolis. Their request was denied. Marriage-equality not widely supported in the LGBTQ+ community until the '90s.
Shortly after that time the United States Congress passed the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), banning federal recognition of marriage for same-sex couples. In 2004, San Franciso Mayor Gavin Newsom started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, claiming the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution demanded it.
The ensuing controversy thrust same-sex marriage into the national spotlight, resulting in sixteen states legalizing it between 2004 and 2013. In 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in the court case Obergefell v. Hodges.
Yohnka spoke about both the threat of anti-LGBTQ advocates and the threat of the conservative shift on the Supreme Court, and how the fight for marriage-equality is far from over.
The tragedy of Glenn Burke is far less known. Hailing from Oakland, California, Burke played for the Los Angelos Dodgers from 19761978 and the Oakland Athletics until 1979. He played 225 games in his brief big-league career, batting .237 with two home runs, 38 RBIs and 35 steals.
Though he was popular with his teammates, Burke's career was cut short by the resentment of management, particularly Dodgers' manager Tommy Lasorda after they learned of his sexuality. Worse still was Burke's friendship with the homophobic Lasorda's gay son, Tom Jr.
Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis offered to pay for a lavish honeymoon if Burke would get married, which he refused to do, and he was subsequently traded to Oakland. With the Athletics, Burke saw little playing time and was forced to endure Manager Billy Martin referring to him as a "faggot" in front of his teammates. At the age of 27 Burke quit the team and his dream of being in the major leagues.
His story came to national attention in an interview in Inside Sports in 1982. Though he did win medals in the first and second Gay Games events in 1982 and 1986 respectively, he descended into a spiral of drug addiction and homelessness. Burke succumbed to complications from HIV at age 42.
In his testimonial Schultz said, "Burke never came out publicly during his time in baseball. But after being called up and establishing himself with the Dodgers in 1977, he never hid who he was either … [M]ost of his teammates figured out that he was gay pretty quickly."
Later he said, "For all of Burke's considerable athletic gifts, his greatest attributes were his courage and his humanity. Just like (Jackie) Robinson and (Roberto) Clemente before him, Burke exuded these qualities with his whole being, and that is why he was able to break barriers for the gay community in a traditional and conservative sport like baseball. As MLB statistical guru Sara Langs is fond of saying, 'Baseball is the best,' and one of the biggest reasons it's the best is because Glenn Burke played the game."
See legacyprojectchicago.org .