A Woman Worth Knowing: Reflections on the Passing of Sally Gearhart

This past July, the LGBTQ community lost one of its most stalwart and influential leaders: Sally Gearhart (1931–2021). A multifaceted, multitalented woman, Gearhart wore more hats in her lifetime than many of us could in several: she was a teacher, feminist, science-fiction writer, and political activist. She became the first open lesbian to obtain a tenure-track faculty position at the university level when she was hired in 1973 by San Francisco State University, where she established one of the first women’s and gender studies programs in the country. Among her contributions to the struggle for LGBTQ rights was her fight against Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 California ballot measure that would have prevented LGBTQ people from teaching in the state’s public schools.

In honor of Gearhart’s life, the GLBT Historical Society is hosting a special program on October 29 featuring as panelists four women who worked with Gearhart at various times in her life in different capacities. The program is designed not only to introduce those unfamiliar with Gearhart’s life and work to her remarkable academic, community-building and literary achievements, but to share a sense of Gearhart’s unique, humorously infectious personality. Here, two of the panelists have contributed short reflections about Gearhart: Deborah Craig, a documentary filmmaker and producer; and Dorothy Haecker, a scholar of women’s studies and feminist philosophy.

Deborah Craig: I first met Sally in the summer of 2014, while I was making a short documentary about lesbians and aging, A Great Ride. I had heard about an octogenarian living on women’s land in Northern California, still cutting her own firewood with a chainsaw. I couldn’t wait to see this! Although we didn’t witness any chainsawing, my camerawoman Silvia Turchin and I spent the weekend trying to keep up with Sally. She strode down wooded paths, rolled under barbed wire fences, and drove her battered Jeep down “roads” through the woods we weren’t sure were there.

But besides being an excitement-filled adventure that we dubbed the “lesbian safari,” this first visit with Sally was the beginning of a longer journey: More and more I understood that she was a towering figure for lesbian feminism and gay rights from the 1970s through the 1990s. She had an astonishing breadth of interests and talents: women’s studies, communication, religion and spirituality, speculative fiction and much more. With her death we’ve all lost a powerful spokeswoman and an amazing intellect. I hope the film we’re making about her life can celebrate her accomplishments, highlight her sense of fun and adventure, and underscore her important legacy of working for justice for women, for gay people, for animals and for the Earth itself.

Dorothy Haecker: Sally Gearhart spent her life obsessed with the causes and cures of violence among humans and between humans and everybody and everything else. She defined the suffering we cause one another in a broad way that included physical, sexual, psychological, political, economic and even rhetorical dimensions. Sally believed feminist consciousness and activism were paths to a less violent world. She wrote fantasy novels—The Wanderground, The Kanshou, The Magister—that envisioned (she would have said “pre-visioned”) such a world. She created a new theory of communication as a solution to what she considered the violence of persuasive speech.

In the late 1970s, she joined forces with Harvey Milk to change the minds of Californians about the Briggs Amendment that, if passed, would have deeply violated LGBTQ rights. She believed in the power of imagination, conversation, wild women and gentle men. She was a prophetic woman, full of radiant contradictions, whose ideas did and can make a difference. She is worth knowing.