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The Wild Ride: Remembering Sally Miller Gearhart

Sally Miller Gearhart, the lesbian author, scholar, and activist, passed away at 90 years old on the 14th of July, 2021. Sally was the first out lesbian to have a tenure position at San Francisco State University. She campaigned against California’s antigay Briggs initiative and fought alongside Harvey Milk in the struggle for gay rights. Sally went on to become a lifelong lesbian activist, an environmental activist, and an all-round hilarious character who wasn’t known to dodge a challenge. 

Testimonials

Sally was admired and cherished by many. Sally’s Facebook page reads:

“Sally Miller Gearhart, educator, author, scholar, lover, and activist, died peacefully after a gradual denouement on 14 July 2021.  Born in Pearisburg, Virginia, on 15 April 1931, Gearhart studied rhetoric and theater, leading a conflicted life as a lesbian in three closets:  the 1950s, academia, and the American south.  She blew those doors off their hinges by moving to California and became the first openly lesbian tenured professor in the US while teaching at San Francisco State.  She was a trailblazing political activist, working with Harvey Milk to defeat Proposition 6 and advocating for lesbians, animals, and the environment throughout her life.  Her writings include science fiction (The Wanderground, Earthkeep Trilogy), theology (Loving Women/Loving Men:  Gay Liberation and the Church), and the esoteric (A Feminist Tarot).  She featured in films including Word is Out:  Stories of Some of our Lives, The Times of Harvey Milk, Last Call at Maud’s, Framing Lesbian Fashion, and No Secret Anymore.”

Sally Gearhart, via Sally documentary

“Gearhart’s dream of a community of women, which she imagined into being, existed for decades north of Willits, where she was known as ‘the Mayor of Chinquapin.’  She entertained fine 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.  Willits was a sanctuary for her which she extended to many beings.  The town offered her both welcome and challenge, as she delighted in the company of free spirits and loggers, left- and right-wing thinkers, actors and reactors, and learned yoga, Spanish, and piano at an age when most people are satisfied merely to teach.  Her sonorous speaking voice, her open heart, and her ready laughter drew others to her, and she relished the dichotomy of having the seclusion of her life on the land while still connecting to the many communities that Willits nourishes.

“While Sally’s presence will be missed, her influence continues, not just as ripples on the surface of a pond, but as the pattern of ripples caused by a skipping stone.  She referred to death as ‘dropping my body,’ and saw it not as an end but as the next step on an adventure.  Sally is remembered by many who love her, many who learned from her, and many who only know her by her words–but those words, like Sally, reach toward eternity.  In lieu of flowers, donations, or memorials, go out and love more.”

Sally Gearhart, via Sally documentary

Sally touched the lives of anyone who came in contact with her. To her students at San Francisco State University, she was tough as well as compassionate, giving them a loving push to be the best they could be. Mary Kenny, a student of Sally’s in the 1970s, said:

“I was an undergrad student and took a couple of classes from Sally at San Francisco State University back in the 1970’s. Sally taught courses in speech communication. As a professor, Sally was brilliant, articulate, knowledgeable and took her profession seriously. She was ‘all Sally,’ kind, affable, respectful, outspoken, funny as could be…..and as tough as nails. She demanded excellence and hard work. Many students were so charmed by her demeanor that they missed this initially. I never worked so hard in a class, and I loved every minute of it, and her.”

Documentaries

Multiple documentaries have been made about Sally, her tireless work, and her zest for life. Deborah Craig produced A Great Ride in 2018, about 3 lesbians, including Sally. She was intrigued by Sally, especially by the fact she wasn’t more known for her activism and work. The 30-minute documentary features aging lesbians. It puts a spotlight on their life and communicates the new struggle for these veteran activists: growing old.  

Deborah Crag was so inspired by Sally that she “embarked on a quest to ensure that Sally isn’t forgotten by history,” which led her to direct and produce the documentary Sally. “Instead of the traditional bio-pic of a hidden figure, Sally becomes something between a wild lesbian safari and a timely and deeply-moving meditation on the tensions inherent in revolutionary movements: Ideological principles versus human realities, seperatism versus mainstreaming, and throwing down the gauntlet versus reaching across the aisle,” according to the documentary’s website. 

“Oh, she’s on her knees… I haven’t had a woman on her knees for me for a long time!”

Sally Gearhart, Sally trailer.

Remembering Sally – and the life of all lesbians who helped attain the freedoms we have today – is the best way to keep her memory alive. Lesbian history, including lives like Sally’s, is often erased. The best way to pay respect to lesbians like Sally is to resist further suppression by learning her story, acknowledging her point of view, and passing it on.

AJ Kelly

Contact AJ at [email protected] or view the rest of her work on aj-kelly.tumblr.com

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