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    Filmmaker Recalls Sally Gearhart: ‘She Helped Change the World, and Also Changed Those of Us in Her World’

    By Deborah Craig–

    Sally Gearhart was a toweringly brilliant woman I encountered quite by accident. I teach Public Health at SF State and am a filmmaker too. While helping LGBTQ public health expert Mickey Eliason with a study of lesbian health, I met so many perceptive and funny women that I began a short documentary about lesbians and aging. Mickey’s collaborator Penny Sablove mentioned an octogenarian she knew still living on women’s land in Northern California and cutting her own firewood with a chainsaw. Naturally, I zoomed up to meet her.

    At this point, I knew little about Sally other than the chainsaw anecdote. But I trekked to Willits with my camerawoman Silvia Turchin in the summer of 2014 to find out more. Though 83, Sally kept us on our toes. She expounded on topics from aging to feminism to gay rights to environmentalism. She recited poetry and prose. She took us with her beloved dog Bodhi on a walk in the local woods—where we scrambled to keep up with her. And we toured the land in her signature battered Isuzu Jeep, an exciting and mildly hair-raising ride with Sally at the helm.

    More and more I learned of Sally’s tremendous importance: She was the first out lesbian to be granted tenure, at San Francisco State. She and other powerhouses such as Nancy McDermid and Jane Gurko co-founded the Women Studies department in the 1970s. Sally fought side-by-side with Harvey Milk—and so many others—to defeat the anti-gay Briggs Initiative, which would have prohibited “homosexuals” from teaching in California’s public schools. She wrote cult classic fantasy novels, including The Wanderground, which envisioned a female-centric utopia where women had supernatural powers. And much more. The real question: Why didn’t I, a lifelong lesbian, immediately recognize her name and significance? After finishing my short film, A Great Ride, I set out to document Sally’s story in a feature-length film. She deserves it!

    With Sally, everything was exciting and nothing was simple. She turned out to be a lesbian separatist with many good men friends and admirers; an environmentalist with a penchant for Pepsi and junk food; a radical feminist with staunch Republican friends; and a lapsed Christian who saw the sacred in every tree, animal, and human being. She also delighted in limelight and cherished her solitude.

    All these years after meeting her, I’m still learning about the richness, breadth, and depth of Sally’s contributions. She had a profound impact on queer scholars of religion and announced, “Feminism has done more for women in 20 years than Jesus Christ did in 2000 years.” She deeply influenced the field of communication, exploring the idea that rhetoric—trying to “win” verbally, and to change people—is a form of violence. She instead aimed to “womanize” rhetoric, advocating for dialogue and interchange, with the goal, not of persuading others, but of understanding their perspectives. She traveled to Nicaragua to join solidarity brigades. She fought for animal rights and apparently had a unique vision of the perfect death: being eaten by a bear! 

    Besides being an idea person, Sally was a people person. She helped change the world, and also changed those of us in her world. I’ve had the amazing privilege to meet many of Sally’s friends and colleagues, some of them going back as many as 40, 50, or even 60 years. Without exception, they respected her intellect, loved her deeply, at times argued with her fervently, and had tremendous stories to tell: Sally apparently leapt on the desk when students weren’t paying attention. Sally strode out to meet the proselytizing Mormons who visited her women’s land community, despite being clothed only in work boots—nothing else. Sally’s unusual eating habits were legendary (I learned quickly to bring donuts rather than whole wheat bread). And Sally’s touch on someone’s shoulder was an electric memory half a century later. Sally was a “beacon,” a “lighthouse,” and a “prophet.” Sally “never said a mean word about anybody” and had “incredible generosity of spirit.”

    For me, meeting Sally has been an extraordinary journey: exciting, sweet, sad, enlightening, and humbling. In 2014, Silvia and I charged down a dirt path and rolled under a barbed wire fence to keep up with her. And I’ve been scrambling ever since to fully understand the brilliance, warmth, complexity, humor, theatrics, contradictions, engagement, connectedness, imagination, and 110% humanity of this truly one of a kind human being. Thank you, Sally, for the privilege. Thank you, Sally, for the adventure.

    For over a decade, Deborah Craig has been a lecturer in the Department of Public Health at San Francisco State University. She is also an award-winning documentary director and producer whose films use compelling personal stories to raise awareness about the challenges and strengths of underrepresented communities. Her short documentary “A Great Ride,” about several lesbians aging with humor and a zest for life, premiered at the Frameline LGBTQ Film Festival in 2018 and has screened at over 50 film festivals around the world. Her new film-in-progress is about SF State’s own Sally Miller Gearhart, a lesbian feminist trailblazer who fought for gay rights side-by-side with Harvey Milk. For more details about the Gearhart documentary:

    About Our Cover

    The legacy of lesbian activist and educator Sally Miller Gearhart (1931–2021) includes today’s LGBTQ teachers, whose basic human rights are recognized under state law given her and Harvey Milk’s leadership in defeating California Proposition 6. Sponsored by conservative state legislator John Briggs, the “Briggs Initiative” in the late 70s sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in the state’s public schools.

    The featured photo of Gearhart was taken in 1977 by legendary San Francisco Bay Times photographer Rink—now the Bay Times’ lead photographer—who worked with Milk (himself a photographer and the owner of Castro Camera at 575 Castro Street between 18th and 19th Streets). Gearhart was at the “No on 6” headquarters in San Francisco.

    The image reflects many details of Gearhart’s life: her activism, dedication to research and work as an academic (the uncropped photo shows a hefty pile of work materials to her side), her love of dogs (a furry pal reclines on the sofa with her), her strong presence, and her ability to find humor and joy in almost any situation. The latter often served her well in debates and other encounters with political foes.

    Published on July 29, 2021