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Documentary to Feature Former Professor and LGBTQ Trailblazer Dr. Sally Gearhart

Throughout history, we’ve associated certain people—typically men—with specific causes, making them the face of a movement. However, there are countless people who led the charge of activism without the spotlight. Former Texas Lutheran University Professor and LGBTQ trailblazer Dr. Sally Gearhart was one of those “hidden figures” in history.

Her tenacity and intellect sparked change in the late 1970s alongside Harvey Milk during their fight against California’s Proposition 6 that would have mandated the firing of any public school employee who was gay or was in support of gay rights. When the proposition didn’t pass Milk was lauded as a pioneer and hero. However, Gearhart’s work was just as important to transforming not only San Francisco and California, but where the United States stands on LGBTQ rights today.

She taught speech and drama at TLU from 1960 to 1971 and, according to university archives, she was very popular among her colleagues and students who referred to her as Dr. Sally. There were also several indications she was not afraid to speak her mind. She advocated for more inclusivity, publicly challenging administration and her writing was often quoted in the university’s paper, The Lone Star Lutheran. She is also most notably credited with helping create the field of women’s and gender studies which she co-founded at San Francisco State University (SFSU).

Dr. Sally Gearhart in the 1967 TLU yearbook.

Before Dr. Gearhart passed away in July 2021 at the age of 90, award-winning documentary director and professor Deborah Craig began working on a film about her life titled, Sally. Craig’s research led her to Dr. Gearhart’s early teaching career at TLU and a curiosity if faculty, staff, and students were aware that such an icon once taught there before leaving to teach at SFSU. The first time Craig heard about Dr. Gearhart was through a colleague who was studying LGBTQ health, and specifically, the health of lesbians over 50.

“There was a film called Gen Silent that detailed the lives of several male LGBTQ seniors aging in the gay community and I remember thinking that we don’t ever really see stories about aging lesbians,” she said. “I had heard about this interesting woman named Sally Gearhart who lived in this remote women’s land community with other women a few hours north of the San Francisco Bay Area. I remembered seeing her in another 1970s classic LGBTQ film called Word Is Out. She was up there alongside Harvey Milk, but she just leapt off the screen. I met Sally when she was 83. She was driving around in her Jeep and chopping firewood. She was very funny and dynamic, and I wanted to know more about why she had moved out to this location and chosen to stay there.”

Craig was focused on finding out if Dr. Gearhart was no longer as a visible member of the LGBTQ movement because she chose a more separatist lifestyle or if she had been erased. According to Craig, the community where she lived was started in the early 1970s and Dr. Gearhart moved there full time in the early 1990s—living there for more than 30 years.

Dr. Gearhart teaching speech at TLU.

“This was a time when being gay wasn’t as accepted,” Craig said. “This was a community they went back to where they felt comfortable and supported. One of the downsides to aging as a queer person is that sometimes, people must go back in the closet when they get older, as shown in the film Gen Silent. For my film, I was interested in showing women and how aging isn’t easy. I also wanted to show this place where women like her were free to say what they thought and where they were comfortable in their own skin. It was a sign of the times and of them creating a safe space while forging their own independence by building their own homes and working on the land. This was them bursting out of the constraints of their past.”

Photo: Sally, left, and Deborah Craig, 2018. Photo credit Lynn Mortensen.

Aside from telling such a unique and inspiring story, Craig says she is always aware of how important it is to remember people, like Dr. Gearhart, who were pioneers for LGBTQ rights.

“They did so much work that at first it was hard for me to understand,” she said. “We take things for granted that we shouldn’t and when we do it’s at our peril. We’ve gained a lot of rights, but we can lose them, too. Every generation should know how hard the fight was and by the way, Harvey Milk was assassinated. Sally is a figurehead, but she was part of a whole movement. We want our film to show that while she was Renaissance woman, movements don’t happen because of one person.”

Dramatic Media major Megan Taylor ’19 had the chance to be interviewed by Craig for Sally. With a degree focused on filmmaking, Taylor was not only excited to be part of the production, but she was also happy to pay her respects to Dr. Gearhart for being someone who paved a path for others like her.

“I had never heard of Sally until I was contacted about the documentary,” she said. “Her work and the work of others inspires me to continue fighting for equality. At TLU, I always felt like I belonged, and I hope everyone can feel that anywhere they go.”

Taylor says she spoke at length with the film crew about the lack of content featuring lesbians versus gay men in media, academics, and politics. This is an issue that is personally important to her, as is raising awareness about specific issues impacting the LGBTQ+ community.

“I work in the media world, and it is very much dominated by men and their perspective of the world,” she said. “While more and more women and people in the LGBTQ+ community and minorities are getting to tell their stories as well, we still have a lot of ground to make up. Hearing their stories is the beginning of learning to sympathize with others, understand their perspectives, lives, and struggles, and grow empathy for people different than you. When we do that, we learn they might not be that different from us after all.”

That message of empathy and listening to others is something Craig says was incredibly essential to Dr. Gearhart, and she hopes that comes across in her film.

“Sally was all about fighting for your rights with compassion and humor without hating or dismissing others,” Craig said. “The ability to listen to people with different views than us and be part of a conversation was important to her. I think we need more of that right now and we need to find ways to come together, otherwise we’re in big trouble.”