Sally Miller Gearhart, Lesbian Luminary, Author, Pioneer and Activist, Dies at 90

  • 3 years ago

“More and more frequently I bless the people that others have called my ‘enemy’ or ‘unacceptable’ or ‘crazy,’ for it is the presence of such people in my life that has whetted my hunger for diversity and led me to the knowledge that, in the end as in the beginning, Love is the universal truth lying at the heart of all creation.

–Sally Miller Gearhart, Small Town Girl Gets Bigger

Northern California lesbian luminary, author, activist and scholar, Sally Gearhart, passed away on July 14 at the age of 90. SDFF audiences may remember her as the sharp-witted, spirited woman who steals the show in A Great Ride (Dir. Deborah Craig, 2018), a short doc about radical, queer women’s experiences of aging that showed in SDFF 2019 and 2021. While shooting A Great Ride in 2014, Craig found an 80-something year-old Gearhart living alone with her dog on a ramshackle rural property that was once the women’s colony Women’s Land. Immediately taken by Gearhart’s magnetic persona and determined not to let her experiences of, and contributions to, early gay liberation to be swallowed up by oversimplified social and political histories, Craig began working on Sally, a doc about Gearhart’s life that takes shape as a “lesbian safari” and meditation on the tensions inherent in revolutionary praxis.

Craig’s was not the first cinematic eye Gearhart had caught, she first appeared as a documentary subject in the 1978 feature Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (Peter Adair, 1978)in which 26 lesbians and gay men are interviewed about their experiences. Word Is Out is widely considered to be the first feature-length doc made by, and about, lesbian and gay filmmakers. The film became critical to the emerging gay rights movement of the 70s, showcasing LGBTIQIA diversity and articulating models for self-identification and representation apart from the stereotypes that dominated straight/mainstream media. By the time she appeared in the film, Gearhart had already gained some notoriety in the academic world.

An Appalachian-born academic, Gearhart began her career living a “deeply closeted” life, teaching speech and drama in various Midwestern and Texas colleges and universities before landing at San Francisco State in the early 1970s. At SF state, she not only became the first openly lesbian professor to be granted tenure at a major U.S. university, she also designed and implemented one of the first gender studies programs in the country. This is also the era in which she published, “The Womanization of Rhetoric,” which was among the earliest scholarly efforts to reconceptualize communication constructs/theories from feminist perspectives. Though her work has directly informed experiments in intersectional representation and rhetoric, her practice as an activist sometimes contradicted it. A gifted debater, Gearhart remained rhetorically persuasive and highly effective over the following decades, as she immersed herself in a number of progressive causes, most notably the struggle for LGBTQIA rights and representation. In 1978, she partnered with San Francisco’s first gay Supervisor, Harvey Milk against Prop. 6, which would have banned queer teachers from public school. The duo made a strong, fact-based case against the bill in a televised debate against the proposition’s main backer, just one week before Milk was assassinated.

Despite some contradictions between theory and practice, Gearhart’s work, in retrospect, appears unified. Feminism, lesbianism, the environment, communication, religion—these are all recurring themes across her academic, activist, and artistic work, which remain consonant in important and inspiring ways. The all-female utopian community of her sci-fi work “The Wanderground” was the model for Gearhart and her partnter Jane Gurko’s Women’s Land, a real-world analogue in Northern California, which Gearhart envisioned and as “the culmination of her lesbian separatist philosophy,” a philosophy that she understood as “an ideology of possibility not probability.” While Gearhart eventually lived on the property alone, she nevertheless actively produced a space “outside of patriarchal confines.” The relative impermanence of such as space isn’t as important as the promise its existence makes toward future possibilities.

In addition to her short autobiographical sketch, Small Town Girl Gets Bigger, there are a growing number of obituaries that delve further into her life and work, which we’ve listed below:

Watch A Great Ride or Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives on Vimeo, where they are available to rent or buy.

To help Deborah Craig complete her biopic, Sally, visit the film’s page on the Center for Independent Documentary

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