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    LGBTQ Community Leaders Remember Sally Miller Gearhart

    Susan Leo, July 14, 2021:

    Sally slipped these earthly bonds last night after a long illness. In her last days she had been visited by many who loved her, both in the flesh and in spirit and she seemed ready to let go.

    Sally was remarkable: sharp in her thinking, clear in her politics, fiercely determined, warmly compassionate. She was an immense presence in San Francisco, arriving in 1970 and becoming the first openly lesbian professor at San Francisco State University in 1973.

    In 1978, she worked closely with Harvey Milk (1930–1978) in leading the campaign against Proposition 6, the California ballot measure that would have banned openly lesbian and gay teachers from public schools.

    Her role is beautifully represented in the 1983 Academy Award–winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, directed by Rob Epstein. By contrast, she is shamefully erased by Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic Milk.

    Science fiction fans will recognize Sally for her ecofeminist and lesbian separatist novel The Wanderground (1978). With Susan Renne, she created The Feminist Tarot (1976). She was active in left politics through much of her life.

    Susan Leo was a close friend of Sally Gearhart and reported her passing. Leo, currently with Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, served as an openly lesbian pastor in the United Church of Christ. The Oregon Historical Society conducted an oral history interview with Leo in 2010: https://tinyurl.com/xry5w9js

    Roma Guy

    Roma Guy:

    Sally Gearhart was a leader in the LGBTQ community and academia. She raised the lesbian voice in both that did not often include women, except as tokens.

    She understood rhetorically how to make her opponents laugh. For [the fight against] the Briggs Initiative, we were a minority trying to change the majority. She identified as a lesbian separatist, but knew that it was important for men and women to work together. During a rally held at Everett Middle School that I also attended, she basically told the crowd, “If I saw Briggs now and any of our opponents, I would go up and smack a big kiss on their lips!” The crowd went apes–t wild.

    Sally and Harvey traveled all over for the “No on Proposition 6” campaign. Harvey knew that many of those for the Proposition were Mormons, and she was able to quote the Bible when interviewed by the media. She wasn’t a hate monger. She humanized her opposition, and found humor in the most challenging times.

    It was fun being with her, and for lesbians of multiple generations, she made a big difference. We are at the end of an era, though, with the passing of Sally, Del (Martin) and Phyllis (Lyon), and others. Sally may not be an icon for younger people, but her legacy should be in our history.

    Roma Guy is an LGBTQ and women’s rights activist. She co-founded The Women’s Building, La Casa de Las Madres, SF Women Against Rape, The Women’s Foundation of California, and more. Currently she serves on the board of directors of Metta Fund, a private foundation committed to San Francisco’s aging population and those furthest from access and opportunity.

    Cleve Jones:

    I fell in love with Sally when I saw her at The Word Is Out at the Castro Theatre. I thought she was amazing; her voice, in particular, was mesmerizing. She projected a degree of charisma that was remarkable.

    As we approached the Briggs Initiative, it was my idea to team her up with Harvey Milk to do the debates. I wasn’t sure she and Harvey would get along. It was therefore wonderful to see how immediately they connected and enjoyed each other’s company.

    She was one of a kind. [She led to] a new generation of lesbian leadership that is more about shattering glass ceilings than about learning how to fly over them.

    Cleve Jones is a human rights activist, author, and lecturer. He co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and founded the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. He works as an organizer for the hospitality workers’ union UNITE HERE. His memoir “When We Rise” inspired an ABC TV mini-series of the same name with a screenplay by Academy Award winner Dustin Lance Black.

    Jean Crosby

    Jean Crosby:

    The best story about Sally that comes to mind at the moment is from 1975 in the era of the fledgling women’s movement. Three of us (including myself) were trying to establish the San Francisco Women’s Centers (parent organization of the Women’s Building). We could commit to working full-time if we could quit our jobs and receive just enough money to live on. We created the Staff Support Project and asked women who had jobs to pledge on a monthly basis to that effort. Sally Gearhart became the loudest cheerleader of the effort, and the biggest contributor. The project was a success and we got off the ground. There was a staff, a small facility, volunteers, and a program, which resulted 3 years later in the establishment of the Women’s Building. 

    Jean Crosby is a Co-Founder of the San Francisco Women’s Centers. Her early history, along with that of others important to the Women’s Building, is shared at https://tinyurl.com/5bj2bubj

    Jewelle Gomez:

    Jewelle Gomez

    Sally Gearhart’s novel The Wanderground enveloped me from my first encounter with the map of its mysterious, female land. It dared to say out loud an elemental truth many had difficulty expressing: outside of the autonomous community of women lay “Dangerland,” a violent threat whose memory we were often trying to excuse or erase.  

    Sally’s novel gave voice to our fears and our power and gave me a first look into the land of speculative fiction, where I’d make my home. When I finally met Sally at a conference and experienced her booming mellifluous voice, imposing stature, and head of wild curls, I knew I loved the original Hill Woman.

    San Francisco Bay Times” columnist Jewelle Gomez is an author, poet, critic, and playwright. http://www.jewellegomez.com/

    Holly Near:

    We shared big bear hugs every time our paths crossed.

    Holly Near is a singer-songwriter, actress, teacher, and activist. https://www.hollynear.com/

    Daniel Nicoletta:

    Daniel Nicoletta

    My favorite moment with Sally was when we were on a Harvey Milk panel discussion together and I was whining to her about not being that secure about public speaking and she looked me square in the eye and in a very loving no nonsense way basically said something to the effect, “Well, get with the program, buddy … .” And it was exactly what I needed in that moment and I did do and have been ever since. We were very honored to have her on the panel in San Francisco that night because we knew she did not like to leave her beloved dog for very long back home in Willits, CA.

    Photographer Daniel Nicoletta worked in Harvey Milk’s Camera Store and is a longtime LGBTQ activist. His photography has been featured in books, periodicals, films, collections, and more. https://www.dannynicoletta.com/

    Dorothy Haecker:

    Dorothy Haecker

    As she was for so many, Sally was my awakening to the possibility of a life authentically lived. An elemental force of nature, charismatic, complicated, compassionate, Sally never met a being of any kind, animal, vegetable, or mineral, that she didn’t believe she could communicate and commune with. Her passion was the deep understanding of violence in all its forms and the ways to attenuate and dissolve it. She was one of the finest visionary storytellers, a most gifted synthesizer, an avant garde thinker, who saw what was coming before most others. Her spoken and written words are worth hearing and reading because they show us personal and global ways to heal and to love.

    An educator for five decades, Dorothy Haecker is an author and Professor Emeritus of Palo Alto College.

    Ruth Mahaney:

    Ruth Mahaney

    I met Sally Gearhart in the fall of 1971. Her booming voice greeted me through the telephone, screaming congratulations to my new woman lover’s announcement of our new relationship. When I moved to San Francisco from the Midwest a few months later, Sally immediately talked me into joining panels and events sponsored by the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, or San Francisco State University where she taught. 

    She helped to found the Women’s Studies Department at SFSU, spoke at rallies for women’s rights and gay rights (as it was called then), and gave lectures at conferences and colleges around the state. Sometimes she invited me to join her speaking engagements where we would each present our perspectives: she as the Cultural Feminist, me as the Socialist Feminist. The audience would often try to resolve our differences, expressing discomfort with our conflicting ideas and trying to bring peace between us. We thought it was fun to disagree, but to be thoroughly committed to one another and both visions for women. We both learned to embrace contradictions.  

    Sally was a brilliant teacher. I know many women who took every class they could with her and who all say that she fundamentally changed their lives. Her classes were exciting and opened the topics of feminism as well as LGBT pride and equality. She believed that women loving themselves and one another was a major form of resistance in a sexist world. I was with her when she received the call from Dean Nancy McDermid informing her that she had been awarded tenure at SFSU. She was ecstatic, especially because she knew that she had just cracked another glass ceiling as an out lesbian becoming tenured at a major university.  

    Sally was interested in a huge variety of topics, from Aikido to the Nicaraguan revolution. (She practiced Aikido and traveled to Nicaragua in support of the revolution.) She argued for “women only” space and also conspired with her gay brothers to win rights and funding for LGBT people and services. 

    Most of all, she loved people and made everyone feel that they were her best friends. She also loved animals and trees, the earth, and the Goddess. And she loved to preach. I remember her giving a speech at Glide Church from the pulpit, where she admitted she had always fantasized about being a minister.

    Most of all, she was the person most full of life I ever met. Her passing is so difficult to comprehend. A tall tree falling. But she was quite ready. She wanted to be in the sky or the forest. And I picture her at a party celebrating, but keeping an eye on us. She made a huge impact on this world. May we carry on in her memory.  

    Ruth Mahaney is a lesbian activist and educator, who for many years was a member of the Modern Times Bookstore collective. Her oral history is shared at https://tinyurl.com/d5jty5s9

    Dr. Marcy Adelman:

    Marcy Adelman

    I met Sally in the 1970s when I was a graduate student at SFSU. She was a smart and courageous spirit with a twinkle in her eye. Her leadership and life-affirming, woman-loving spirit impacted me and so many other lesbians who came to San Francisco in the 1970s to live an out life. We were transforming our lives, fighting for our rights, and building community. Sally was our champion—an out educator and feminist who helped create women’s studies and who took on the Briggs Initiative and won.

    Rest in peace Sally; we will be forever grateful.

    “San Francisco Bay Times” columnist Dr. Marcy Adelman is a psychologist and LGBTQ+ longevity advocate and policy adviser who oversees the “Aging in Community” column. She serves on the California Commission on Aging, the Board of the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California, the California Master Plan on Aging Equity Advisory Committee, and the San Francisco Dignity Fund Oversight and Advisory Committee. She is the Co-Founder of Openhouse, the only San Francisco nonprofit exclusively focused on the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ older adults.

    Janet Rachel, June 14, 2021:

    Janet Rachel

    Friends, a powerful loving woman has passed on to her next venture. This morning Sally Gearhart made her free flight to the universe we can only dream about. She was 90 years old and had been ill for a while. The care of loving friends made it possible for her to live in her own Wanderground, her land and cottage in Willits, California, until almost the end.

    Sally was a professor, feminist, science-fiction writer, and political activist who fought alongside Harvey Milk to defeat the 1978 Briggs Initiative, and co-founded the women’s land community in Willits. And so much more. Lots has been written and filmed about her, and a documentary, Sally, is in progress.

    To me, she was a dear friend who had humor, spiritual grace, and a love for music. We sang together for about 15 years in the lesbian satire quartet Alternative Measures. Her bass voice booms in my head as I write this. May our Sal bring more harmony to the universe and the earth. Fly on, Sister Sal!

    Janet Rachel is a vocalist with the band Ruby’s in Town and was a founding member of Out on a Clef. Her musical theater work includes a lead role in “Dykes on Broadway,” and she was a member of numerous jazz ensembles including the Note-orious jazz sextet and the Jazz City Singers. https://www.rubysintown.com/

    Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, July 20, 2021:

    I requested that we adjourn today’s Board of Supervisors meeting in memory of Sally Miller Gearhart, who died on July 14th, 2021, in Ukiah, California, at the age of 90. Sally was a truly extraordinary woman, an author, educator, and pioneering LGBTQ and feminist activist … Sally was featured prominently in The Times of Harvey Milk; Last Call at Maud’s, a 1993 film about the famed San Francisco lesbian bar; and A Great Ride, a short documentary about senior lesbians living in Northern California.

    She was portrayed by actress Carrie Preston in the 2017 ABC miniseries When We Rise.

    Sally imagined her dream of a community of women into being, establishing her own feminist utopian space in the woods near Willits, California, where she resided for many years following her retirement from San Francisco State University. Here she entertained women, cats, dogs, racoons, deer, birds, and the occasional bear and human male with her stories, her music-making, and her imaginative appreciation of the diversity of the human experience.

    May her memory be a blessing, and may her legacy live on in the work of future generations of LGBTQ activists for whom she paved the way.

    Rest in Power, Sally Gearhart.

    Former “San Francisco Bay Times” columnist Rafael Mandelman serves on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors representing District 8.

    Published on July 29, 2021